Tournament rankings went out of the window at the 2023 Men’s Olympic Ice Hockey Qualification Round 3, Group J in Sosnowiec, Poland.
Third-ranked Ukraine grabbed top spot and went through the tournament undefeated. As winners of Group J, Ukraine will now move into the final round for the first time since 2013.
The final Olympic qualification will be played between 29 August and 1 September, 2024. Twelve teams will be locking horns for three spots at the 2026 Olympic Winter Games in Milano Cortina, Italy.
UKRAINE 5 ESTONIA 3 (3-0, 1-2, 1-1)Three unanswered first-period goals by Vadym Mazur, Pylyp Pangelov-Yuldashev and Vitali Lialka led the way for Ukraine in keeping their Olympic dream alive.
Yevgen Fadyeyev also tallied for Ukraine while Olexander Peresunko scored the final marker of the game.
Ukraine has once previously skated at the Olympic Winter Games. In 2002 in Salt Lake City, USA, one of their star men out on the ice was Dmytro Khrystych. These days, the 54-year-old is currently enjoying a flying start in his debut as head coach of the national team.
Ukraine stepped out on the ice versus Estonia needing at least two points to kill off any hopes from its contenders in the closing game of the tournament.
They got on the board early. With 2:29 gone, captain Igor Merezhko´s wrister from the point took a touch on Mazur as Olexi Vorona screened Estonian netminder Villem-Henrik Koitmaa.
Ukraine had survived two consecutive penalty kills before two players from the Polish top division combined for 2-0. Unia Oswiecim´s Andri Denyskin backhanded a pass to Podhale Nowy Targ´s Pangelov-Yuldashev who slid in towards Koitmaa´s net to pick his spot for an accomplished finish at 15:59.
They were three goals up with 2:43 left of the period when the skilful Lialka stole the puck from Daniil Kulintsev to race clear towards Koitmaa´s net and convert with a back-handed effort.
Previously Khrystych´s most recent stint on the Ukrainian bench was during a particularly fruitful spell as an assistant coach during the 2012/13 season.
It also coincided with the last couple of occasions Ukraine had gotten the better of Poland. They had first enjoyed a 5-1 win in Olympic qualification back in November 2012. It was repeated with a narrow 4-3 win in April 2013 as Ukraine won gold in Division IB.
With the game opening up as the second frame got underway, Estonia´s top scorer in the previous round, Robert Arrak hit back at 23:29 after industrious work by teammates Robert Rooba and Daniil Fursa behind Bogdan Dyachenko´s net.
64 seconds later, saw Fadyeyev fly down into Estonia´s zone to unleash a wrister into the top corner to restore the three-goal cushion for 4-1. In his fifth Olympic qualifiers, Koitmaa then decided to give way in the Estonian net to 20-year-old Henrik Virro.
Vadim Vasjonkin and Mark Viitanen hit back with two Estonian goals on each side of the second intermission to add a bit of nerve to the contest. But with 2:20 left of the game Peresunko raced clear on a Lialka pass to close the scoring to 5-3.
KOREA 3 POLAND 2 OT (0-0, 1-0, 1-2, 1-0)Poland´s Olympic heartache continues. 32 years have elapsed since the 13-time Olympians last skated at the men´s ice hockey tournament in Albertville 1992.
In the closing game of the tournament with only pride at stake, Hyeongcheol Song scored Korea´s overtime winner. During regular time, the tournament´s top-scorer 19-year-old Jungwook Hong netted a double for Korea, while Yeonseung Lee enjoyed a fine evening between the pipes saving 37 shots.
Korea broke the deadlock at 35:08. Chong Min Lee won a battle along the boards with Mateusz Zielinski and Mateusz Michalski as teenager Hong snapped up the puck, drove towards Poland´s net to bundle in a backhand finish past David Zabolotny.
Momentum was back with the home team at 47:30 when on a two-on-one rush Pawel Zygmunt fed Dominik Pas who slotted home the equalizing goal.
With Poland pressing relentlessly for a winner, Korea´s Sangho Bae had other plans. On a breakaway with three chasing Polish players closing in he was awarded a penalty shot. Hong stepped up and cooly deked Zabolotny to score with a backhand finish at 49:35.
Needing only 27 seconds to reply, Polish levelled once again when a slapper from Pawel Dronia from the point rebounded from the boards to the path of goalscorer Jakub Wanacki.
Zabolotny is yanked from Poland´s net with 24 seconds left of the third period in an unsuccessful to try and win all three points. In the ensuing overtime, veteran Sangwook Kim picked out Song who on his second attempt stabbed the puck past Zabolotny for the game-winning goal at 63:58
With Poland finishing a disappointing second, the Olympic dream appears to have reached the end of the road for a number of the roster´s seasoned veterans. The results in Sosnowiec, will also give head coach Robert Kalaber a lot of fine-tuning to mull over ahead of Poland´s opening game at the World Championship versus Latvia in Czechia´s Ostrava looming in three months.