Great Britain 4-3 Romania
NOTTINGHAM, Eng. -- Former Belfast Giants forward Brendan Connolly scored the game-winner on his Great Britain debut as the tournament hosts began their Olympic qualifying campaign with a 4-3 win over Romania.
Pete Russell's men were good value for their win and probably should have had a greater winning margin given their dominance of practically every facet of the game, but the head coach will happily take an opening victory in this mini pre-qualifying tournament.
With Hungary, arguably their biggest threat to making it August's final qualifying tournament, picking up a 4-1 win over Estonia in the day's first game, GB responded by putting their first win on the board as well as Connolly struck on his maiden appearance for his country.
It was a current Giant who set him up, winger Ben Lake reversing the pass to the crease for the ex-Belfast man to fire past Patrik Polc - 30 saves - at just 12:50 of the middle frame to round off Britain's scoring, making it 4-2.
Russell's men got the go-ahead goal just 30 seconds before that when Matthew Myers scored a brilliant solo effort that saw him finish five-hole on Polc to ensure that GB would, as expected, begin their home tournament with a crucial win, which also saw them get first period goals from Dallas Erhardt and Robert Farmer.
"I don't think the score reflected the performance, to be honest," said head coach Russell. "I thought we played with great pace. Our forecheck was fantastic, we turned pucks over.
"Their goalie made 10 amazing saves to keep them in it. There were a couple of ropey moments where we tried too much at times to get more offense, but they were playing on the break and they were good at it.
"Thought the new guys came in and had a great game tonight. Thought (Brendan) Connolly was excellent. Travis (Ehrhardt) as well.
"People go on about how we should beat Romania easily but they're a Pool B nation. They're not terrible, there's no bad teams. But I thought we looked a level up from them, for sure."
Both sides had to play out early penalties, with Romania the first side short-handed when called for holding, before GB had to see out a Lake tripping minor shortly after.
Despite being out-shot 14-3 in the first period, it was Romania who took a shock lead at 14:21 when Vitali Kirichenko got the breakaway and sniped one into the top corner over Ben Bowns' - 20 saves - shoulder.
But it took GB all of 2:55 to not only draw level, but turn the game around and take the lead as their clinical finishing found them before the first intermission.
First came Ehrhardt's leveller, the defenceman picking up a loose puck in the high slot and cranking one in off the left post at 15:11 to tie it up at 1-1, before Farmer got the go-ahead goal at 17:16, picking up Ehrhardt's rebound and hitting the twine for 2-1.
However, having gone ahead, GB had to rally to kill off three penalties inside the opening seven minutes of the middle frame as Davy Phillips (high sticking), Luke Ferrara and Travis Ehrhardt (both tripping) all sat for penalties, and they nearly paid when Yevgeni Yemelyanenko hits the post on the powerplay.
At the other end, Polc had to be exceptional again when he made an excellent diving save to deny Matthew Myers on the breakaway with Davy Phillips, and the netminder was rewarded with the second tying goal.
It was something of a fortunate one for the Romanians, who were still being outplayed despite their time with the extra man, but it counted nonetheless as Daniel Tranca's hopeful shot somehow deceived Bowns and beat him five-hole at 9:46 for 2-2.
But just as soon as Romania had tied it up, GB finally found the lead that they wouldn't relinquish as they grabbed two quickfire goals in 30 seconds to take the game beyond their visitors.
First came the go-ahead shot from Myers at 12:20, the centre taking the puck in the slot and waiting out Polc for the five-hole finish for 3-2, which was quickly followed by Brendan Connolly slotting in Lake's reverse pass from behind the net for the game-winner at 12:50.
"Hammy (Mike Hammond) made a good chip to me down the wall and Conns made a good play going to the net. I was lucky enough to find his stick for the finish," said Lake.
Romania did manage to play out a hooking call on Tamas Farkas to get to the second intermission just the two behind, and that seemed to energise them coming out in the third as they tried to claw back the two-goal deficit.
It was GB who came closest to getting on the scoresheet first in the final period though as Farmer danced through the slot and got his shot away, only to see it clink off the iron and rebound away despite the goal light coming on behind the net.
GB looked to have done enough to coast to victory when Ollie Betteridge took a tripping call but the hosts played it out, only for Alpar Sallo to make it a nervy finish by making it 4-3 with a strike from the half-boards with just 3:19 remaining.
However, it was a professional finish from GB, who managed to pin Romania into their own zone to the extent that Polc never managed to even get to the bench for the extra skater, allowing Russell's side to close out an opening win that maybe wasn't wholly convincing, but one which they'll gladly take.
"We're happy with the win but we feel like there were moments in the game where we played well and there were also moments where we let them take it to us too much," said Lake, who was named man of the match.
"Positives to take out of it but things to work on as well. We made too many mistakes in the o-zone, there were times where we didn't make the right reads or the best plays and it ended up costing us a few times.
"We need to get used to the international game again. Everyone plays for different teams and does something different, so when we come back to GB we need to remember what makes us successful: being a direct hockey team."
In the day's earlier game, it was GB's closest rivals Hungary who also got their tournament off to the perfect start with a 4-1 win over Estonia.
Winger János Hári got a hat-trick for the Hungarians, who were backed by 19 saves from netminder Miklós Rajna in picking up the first win of the tournament.