Italy has its helper

After slow start, Azzurri start gathering momentum

22-04-11
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Quebec City Quebec Canada
Armin Helfer (#26), here in a top-division game, has been one of the best defencemen at the Division I tournament in Budapest. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

BUDAPEST – After a relatively slow start – despite achieving a spotless record – the Italians seem ready to face Hungary for promotion on Saturday. On Wednesday they defeated Korea 6-0 after two surprisingly tight wins against Spain (2-0) and the Netherlands (3-2).

While Italy hasn’t been an offensive superpower in the first two games, the team of Italian-Canadian coach Rick Cornacchia has relied on strong defence. And defence will remain the key for Italy.

“Maybe we underestimated our opponents in the beginning and thought that everything would go the right way automatically,” said Armin Helfer, playing in his 12th World Championship.

His name literally means “helper”, and Italy is glad to have the help the experienced defenceman provides. In his first three games, he got a goal and two assists along with a +3 plus-minus rating, ranking him among the best blueliners at this event.

Against Korea, things went better when the team focused on its Asian opponent, rather than looking ahead to the last and most exciting challenge on Saturday against Hungary. The host nation is the only other undefeated team at the 2011 IIHF World Championship Division I Group A.

“We have been improving our game and now we can finally think about Hungary,” said goalkeeper Thomas Tragust, who’s been the starter in two games and hasn’t conceded a goal so far.

“We’re very motivated to play against them. We know they are strong and fast in front of the net. We know we’ll be the enemy playing in front of a loud home crowd. We need to be strong defensively and make as few mistakes as possible. It’ll be very exciting on Saturday.”

Italy has gone back and forth between IIHF World Championship divisions over the last ten years. The Azzurri were relegated from the top division in 2002, 2008 and 2010, but they earned promotion in 2005 and 2009.

What does Italian hockey need to stay with the elite nations longer? Just look at Denmark, France or Germany, three other nations that have gained promotion since the start of the new millennium, and have managed to stay there for an extended period.

“We need younger players at this level that can be integrated by the coach,” Helfer said.

Indeed, the team consists mostly of players that have appeared frequently with the senior national team. Only two players are younger than 22.

Marco Insam, 21, returned to Italy last summer after two years with the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs. He’s coming off his first year with the Bolzano Foxes.

And Thomas Larkin, 20, is playing in his first event with the senior national team after his second NCAA season with Colgate University. He became the first Italian-trained NHL-drafted player two years ago when the Columbus Blue Jackets selected him in the fifth round.

Apart from these two players, Cornacchia is looking at an experienced roster with players who know how to win a deciding game for promotion.

“I think we should look at how the Swiss are doing it. They should be a model,” Helfer said. “They allow only four imports in their league and these are top players who can make a difference. That helps develop other players, and there’s more space for home-grown players on the rosters. In Italy we have eight imports that are not at such a high level. Money could be spent differently.”

Switzerland is also the place Helfer will move after two years with his hometown team, Pustertal Bruneck. He signed with the B-league club HC Thurgau for next season, and hopes to earn a spot in the top league.

But for now, the Italians have only one focus after two off-days: their next opponent, Hungary. Strong goaltending and a good defence will be crucial against the offensive talent the Hungarians have shown so far.

MARTIN MERK

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