KOSICE – Often the Relegation Round is the one fans are least interested in, but anyone who is following the World Championship this year will want to follow tonight’s two final games with keen interest.
Never before has the situation been as clear-cut as tonight. The four teams all have three points in the standings to date, meaning that the math can be reduced to the simplest possible formula. The teams that win tonight stay in the top level for 2012, and the teams that lose will be relegated to Division I.
The two games will be played simultaneously, Slovenia and Belarus going at it at the Orange Arena in Bratislava at 20.15 and Latvia and Austria at the Steel Arena in Kosice. For these four nations, tonight is gold-medal night.
Slovenia and Belarus have met only once before at the Worlds, a 4-3 Belarus win in 2003. On paper, Belarus is the better team although it hasn’t played that way here so far. It started by losing a pair of 4-1 decisions to Canada and Switzerland and followed up with a disappointing 2-1 loss to France in overtime. An impressive 7-2 win over Austria was tempered two days later by a 6-3 loss to Latvia.
Slovenia, on the other hand, has had some positives to take from its games so far. It started with a 3-1 loss to host Slovakia, an expected result given the emotions the Slovaks felt for playing a World Championship game on home ice for the first time. Then came the incredible third period against Russia in a 6-4 loss, one in which the team rallied from 4-2 down to tie the score.
The third game was also impressive, a 3-2 loss to Germany in a shootout, and then came a 5-2 win over Latvia. In the last game, Austria scored the only goal of the third period and beat Slovenia, 3-2, setting up today’s scenario.
Latvia has played Austria four times previously, winning three. But the Latvians are having a tough time keeping up with the big boys these days. The nation is waiting for some of its bright young stars to develop, and until then playing in relegation rather than playoffs might be the norm.
The Latvians lost their opening game to the Czechs, taking a 2-2 score into the third period only to lose, 4-2. They then lost to Finland in a shootout, 3-2, a heart-breaking decision that helped put them where they are today. They then lost to Denmark in another shootout, 3-2, and then went down to Slovenia, 5-2. Their last game was a convincing 6-3 win over Belarus.
Austria is without Thomas Vanek and many other top players and as a result has had a terrible time scoring goals. They lost 5-1 to the U.S. and 3-0 to Sweden, and followed with a 5-0 loss to Norway. They lost to Belarus, 7-2, and then edged Slovenia, 3-2, to put themselves in position to go to Finland in 2012. But, they have scored only five goals in as many games.
All of those scores are in the past, and these four nations – and their federations – are anxiously awaiting the results of the most important games of the year tonight.
Winners go to Finland/Sweden. Losers go to Division I. Yes, it really is that cut and dried.