BRATISLAVA – The pecking order in international hockey is no great secret. But based on early results at the IIHF World Championship, it’s getting harder to figure out where the Germans fit in.
"It's all about confidence,” said Germany’s Andre Rankel about his blue-collar team’s early wins over star-laden Russia and Slovakia. “Something happened last year [en route to a fourth-place finish]. We know we can play against the big nations."
You have Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic as the perennial gold medal contenders. The Russians have only recently returned to that status, and the Swedes tend to settle for silver or bronze, but the general assessment holds true.
Then you have the United States as the nation with the talent and player pool to fit right in with the top four, but a traditional inability to deliver the goods when senior-level tournaments – World Championships or Olympics – are played outside North America.
As for Finland and Slovakia, these are the two “Big Seven” nations that have just one World Championship gold medal apiece in IIHF competition. While the Finns give Sweden a run for their money in terms of second- and third-place finishes, they’re infamous for coming up short in championship games. And of course, Slovakia, this year’s host team, hasn’t won anything since a bronze in 2003.
So where does Germany fit in? Is it ready to separate itself from the likes of Switzerland or Belarus?
Two years ago, the Germans almost fell off the map when they stumbled to a 15th-place Worlds finish in Switzerland. However, they stuck with head coach Uwe Krupp, the former Stanley Cup winner with the Colorado Avalanche, who took over the German national team in 2005.
That decision has paid big dividends. Not only did Germany shine last year on home ice, but it has started off 2011 with a bang. A first-game upset over Russia was one thing, but continuing that success against Slovakia was doubly impressive. A Qualifying Round berth has already been secured.
"German players are, by and large, very coachable and a hard-working group," explained Krupp. "They bond quickly as a team, and then do a good job."
The Germans have always had solid goaltending and have never shied away from physical play. What’s distinguished the teams of 2010 and 2011 (so far) is their ability to stay calm and committed to their plan under pressure. Yes, their total of 13 minor penalties was higher than any other team's through May 1, but they've only surrendered one power play goal.
Superb box play, taking away the middle of the ice, relentless work in all three zones? Check, check, check. There's no sign that these 20-somethings can't keep up physically with more experienced, gifted opponents.
"The generation of players you see here, for the most part, has gone through the German junior league, and has been developed through international play in the Under-18 and Under-20 programs," said Krupp. "I’d say that one of the main reasons we have these players here is the development of the DNL, the German junior league."
As for timely, opportunistic goal-scoring, Germany is getting it by committee. No German has more than one goal so far. They can't point to one standout sniper like some other nations (see Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar or Austria’s Thomas Vanek). They don’t even have perennial NHL 20-goal-scorer Marco Sturm, but somehow it doesn’t matter. At least not yet.
How far can Germany go with this formula? Despite a few dips, the black-red-gold squad has always hovered close to eighth place historically. Simply not playing in the Relegation Round would be no big deal. If, however, the Germans make and get past the quarter-finals for the second straight year, that would be a real signal that something out of the ordinary is happening.
It would also provide a major boost for what remains a cult sport in a country of 82 million people.