Team New Zealand have booked their tickets to the 2019 WFC in Canada, with a hard-fought 3-3 draw against a tough and determined Australian side on the final night of the Asia-Oceania Under 19 qualifying tournament.
The third draw of the three-game tournament also sees Japan book a spot in next year´s U19 World Floorball Championships in Halifax, with the two qualifying teams decided on total goals scored in the tournament.
Playing in front of the largest crowd ever to witness an international floorball match in New Zealand, the Kiwis didn´t disappoint the 570 fans gathered at the ASB Sports Centre in Wellington.
The visiting Australians came out strong to start the game, dominating early possession and taking a 1-0 lead just under five minutes in on an unassisted shot from Jack Keene.
The Aussies continued to put the pressure on the home side in a very physical first period which saw bodies from both teams tumbling over the boards as neither team would give an inch in battles for the ball.
The Australians went on the power play at 7:28 when New Zealand´s Louis Scott was handed a two minute penalty for tripping.
The Aussies worked the ball around well but the Kiwi penalty killers were up to the task, including starting goalie Dylan Tesoriero-Smith, who made seven saves in the first period to keep his team in the game.
Australia´s Jordan Noel was sent to the sin-bin for two minutes for pushing at 13:55, but the Kiwis were unable to capitalise on the man advantage, and the first period finished with the visiting Aussie´s ahead 1-0.
The Kiwis came out to start the second period looking confident, and the teams traded possession and shots, but neither was able to put the ball into the net until New Zealand´s Russell Hirst buried a rebound off a great wrist shot from Alec Stewart to tie the score at 1-1, sending the fans in the packed stands to their feet.
The score remained that way for the rest of the second period, with Australian goalie Harrison Sargeant and New Zealand keeper Darren Patrick both making key saves for their teams to keep the score level.
The New Zealanders started the third-period strong, feeding off the energy of the noisy home crowd, who went into a frenzy after forward Tim McKibben buried a hard shot in the back of the Australian net off of a nice assist from captain Josh Campbell.
The Kiwis kept up the pressure, sensing that a place in the World Cup was within their grasp, but the Australians kept fighting hard, looking for the equaliser. The New Zealanders went on their second power play of the game, with just under seven minutes remaining after Noel was penalised again on a tripping call.
This time New Zealand took advantage, when defenceman Andreas Ming found the back of the net on a slap shot off of a feed from Joshua Elkin.
Up 3-1 with just under six minutes to play and knowing they needed only a draw to earn a spot in Canada, the Kiwis looked to hold possession and deny the Australians the chance to get the three goals they needed to win.
When Australia was penalised again with three and half minutes remaining on a pushing call to Dylan Clutterbuck, it looked like the Aussie´s chances were all but over. But the young Australians were not about to give up and after killing off the penalty, captain Steven Lamble scored off of a free hit from the corner to bring the score back to 3-2 with one minute and nine seconds to play.
The Kiwis looked to stop the Aussie comeback, but 45 seconds later the Australians scored again, with Jordan Noel battling to get the ball over the line after a frantic scramble in front of the net.
The anxiety was thick in the home crowd, but the Kiwi boys held off the hard-charging Australians in a desperate final 24 seconds to earn the draw they needed, on a memorable and historic night of international floorball in Wellington.
By Andy Knackstedt
All games in the WFCQ AOFC tournament ended up in draws. Japan and New Zealand will continue to the next phase and are still fighting for playing in Canada 2019.