KOSICE – Talk to anyone involved with German ice hockey about last year’s World Championship and, chances are, they will have a smile on their face. There were record crowds, more attention than the national team had received in years and, most notably, the best finish for any German team since 1938.
While it seems likely that there will be a bit of a letdown at this year’s championship, general manager Klaus Merk has a lot of faith in this year’s team – albeit a very different team than the squad they had one year ago.
“Last year was something very special,” says Merk. “We had some luck, we had some good North American players and it all went well. But we also have a good group this year. It is a little different than last year’s group and we are hoping for a few surprises.”
One of the great stories of the German team’s fourth-place finish last year was the play of goaltender Dennis Endras (Augsburg, GER). Endras was voted the top goalie in the tournament by the directorate and also named the most valuable player. He spent this past season with the bottom-dwelling Ausburger Panther in the DEL. With no playoffs to worry about, he’s had plenty of time to prepare and focus on regaining his form for the World Championship. Another option in goal will be veteran Dimitri Pätzold (Hanover, GER), who has played in three World Championships and also the 2010 Olympics.
Justin Krueger (Bern, SUI) continues to develop nicely (he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes for next season) and Korbinian Holzer (Toronto Marlies, AHL) will both see lots of ice time, including key roles on the powerplay. Workhorse Constantin Braun (Berlin, GER) sees a lot of ice time and is rarely caught out of position. Nicolai Goc (Mannheim, GER) is one of those steady defencemen that fans rarely notice, but coaches love. Bottom line however, is that the Germans gave up more shots on goal than any other team in last year’s tournament. To match last year’s level of success they’ll either have to play better in their own zone or hope for another heroic tournament from Endras.
The big hole this year’s German team will struggle to fill is the one left by Marcel Goc (Nashville, NHL), last year’s captain and leader.
“He did all the little things well,” says Merk. “He was not selfish, he made his teammates better and he was the leader of the team.”
No team played more close games than the Germans did last year – seven of their nine games were decided by one goal. No one had a better touch under pressure than Felix Schütz (Ingolstadt, GER), who scored the game winner in two of the Germans’ four wins. Schütz didn’t have a great season in the DEL but is determined to “show what he can do” at the World Championship to make up for it, according to assistant coach Ernst Höfner.
Hamburg captain Alexander Barta, DEL leading goal scorer Michael Wolf (Iserlohn, GER) and Daniel Kreutzer (Düsseldorf, GER) are all players to keep an eye on as well. Barta led the team with three goals last year and Kreutzer was the best plus/minus player on the team.
Uwe Krupp will be coaching in his fifth World Championship for Germany. Coaching ability aside, Krupp commands instant respect from the moment he walks into the dressing room because players know that any price he asks them to pay, he paid himself during his 15 seasons in the NHL. He’s also earned the respect of the next generation of young German players, many of whom he has worked with since they were in their early teens.
The Germans have the unfortunate task of opening against Russia. That will be followed by a game against the host nation, Slovakia – meaning that their third game against Slovenia could well determine whether they move on to the qualification round or have to play in the relegation round. Another quarter-final berth would be an incredible accomplishment. More realistically, they should finish between 9th and 11th.