2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia
In Taipei City, Chinese Taipei, March 14th-19th, 2015
Participants: Chinese Taipei, United Arab Emirates, Mongolia, Thailand, Macau
Let’s face it, your just thrilled about the Challenge Cup of Asia.
OK, now that you’re done laughing, I’ll cut to the chase. I actually love this tournament. It’s a good chance for many teams to participate in a somewhat-competitive setting in hopes of eventually earning enough funds to compete more consistently. The Challenge Cup of Asia has run every year since 2008, featuring some countries that have eventually moved on to the World Championships. There have been a few different versions of it over the years, including men’s, women’s, U20, U18 and university levels.
On the men’s side this year, there will two divisions, the top group and Division I. With the main event beginning this week in Taipei City, let’s take a look at the five teams that will be battling for gold in Asia’s top hockey tournament of the year.
Chinese Taipei (Last Year: 1st) - Betting against the Chinese Taipei at the Challenge Cup of Asia would be a big mistake. Long story short, they’re one of the best teams not competing in the World Championships. The four time champions return to the ice again this year, looking to win their third straight event after coming in last in 2012 due to a lack of funds.
Fortunately for the favourites, many of the key players from last year will return to the lineup for the 2015 edition. Lifeng Lu is back to defend his scoring title from last year’s tournament, when the speedy forward scored 11 goals and 22 points in just five games. Joining him on the first line is To Weng, the highest scoring forward in the history of the country with 40 career points. Last year, Weng finished with 17 points, the second highest in the tournament. The roster will also be backed by Keng-Pang Ting, the top goalie at the conclusion of the 2014 event. He didn’t have to face many shots last year, making just 57 saves (the lowest of all goalies that played at least four games), but his SP% of .919 was the top when it was all said and done. This year, the team will be just as strong as ever, and hopefully, some more World Championship funding can come out of a big victory this year to help send them to the Division III World’s in 2016.
United Arab Emirates (Last Year: 2nd) – Whenever Chinese Taipei struggles to grab gold, it seems like UAE is always there to take their place. “Team Dubai”, as they are sometimes referred to, participate in the most competitions out of any team in this event. Last year alone, UAE was apart of the Division III World Championships, Gulf Ice Hockey Championships (where they won gold) and the CCoA.
This past summer, it was announced that the country had a 350% increase in hockey participation, putting them second on the IIHF’s five year growth chart. UAE has done a good job with promoting the game within and building a roster solid enough to not get embarrassed at the World Championships, but they still lack a big time goal scorer like some of the other teams. Their top scorer last year, Saeed Al Nuaimi, was only good enough for seven points, finishing behind six of Taipei’s goal scorers in the final standings. Luckily for UAE, they still have a very solid foundation with all their lines, and the incredible goaltending from Khalid Al Suwaidi will probably help UAE be a contender once the tournament comes to an end. Will they win gold? That’s a stretch, but they’ll surely be battling for a silver at the end.
Mongolia (Last Year: 3rd) - Mongolia may be the only other competitive team in this tournament. Last year, the Mongolians finished with the second most amount of goals, 24, but was still 29 behind Taipei’s mark of 53. The team used to compete in the World Championships many years ago, but things went downhill when they had to pull out of all 2011 IIHF tournaments due to financial trouble and lack of equipment.
This year, the team is looking for more than just a third place result. Their real strength will be up front, as Mishigsuren Namjil will look to build upon his 11 point effort from 2014, good enough to finish tied for third in tournament scoring. Their net presence was less-than-stellar last year, as Munkhbold Bayarsaikhan finished with a .881 SP%, finishing fifth in that category. Their offense shouldn’t completely dry up and ruin their chance at a medal, but their goaltending will need to really step it up if they hope to battle for a bronze this time around.
Thailand (Last Year: 4th Place) – Thailand has had a rough few years in the hockey world. Not including being a ghost to most hockey fans, the country has struggled at the Challenge Cup of Asia over the past two years after four straight years of medals. Led by legendary goal-scorer Panithi Nawasmittawong, the team will need a little more than just luck to pull through this year. In fact, their second top scorer from last year, Likit Neimwan, wont be attending this year’s tournament, so their scoring will surely take a hit.
If you’re curious about the difference in competition in an event like this, Thailand fell 15-1 to Chinese Taipei last year. They were able to take down Kuwait 10-2 to finish off the tournament last year, giving them their second victory of the event, but an 8-2 loss to the third place Mongolia really put a dampen on their performance. The team lacks any real advantage anywhere on the ice, and even though they’ll have the mighty Pattarapol Ungkulpattanasuk (I had to copy and paste that) between the pipes, don’t expect much success to land in Thailand’s favour.
Macau (Last Year: 1st Place, Division I): It’s just cool to be involved, right Macau? The last time the country took part in the top division of the Challenge Cup of Asia, they lost 11-0 to the eventual champions, Chinese Taipei. The good news? Taipei took down Kuwait 21-0 the day after, so it wasn’t all too bad. They did win the Division I championships last year, however, recording impressive victories against Singapore and Kyrgyzstan to take a surprising gold medal.
There isn’t a whole lot of positives going for the team this year, however. In 44 games, the team averages just two goals a game. Considering the high scoring nature of hockey in this event, Macau will struggle to just stay alive. Macau would love to prove they deserve to be in the top group, but finishing ahead of anyone this year seems like a stretch.
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