MANNHEIM – Oui, ça va bien! France continued its recent domination of Italy on Saturday, prevailing 2-1 in a tight-checking affair at SAP Arena to kick off the Relegation Round. Laurent Gras scored the winner early in the third period.
The last time these two nations met in Relegation Round action, it was 2008, and the French sent Italy down with wins of 3-2 and 6-4 in a two-game series in Quebec City. This time, the four Relegation Round participants are playing a round-robin, with no points carried over from the Preliminary Round.
With its first win of the 2010 Worlds, France now has a big three points as it vies for a fourth straight berth in the elite division. Italy remains winless in four straight games.
Baptiste Amar also scored for France. Michele Strazzabosco had the lone Italian goal.
"We fought hard and worked as a team," said Amar. "We know we're not technically the best team, but we work hard as a group, and we were rewarded today."
French goalie Fabrice Lhenry outduelled Italy's Daniel Bellissimo for the victory. The Italians outshot the French 29-22.
There's no rest for these teams. On Sunday, France will face the Americans, coming off a lopsided victory over Kazakhstan. That day, Italy will take on the Kazakhs in a must-win game.
"This game is history," said Italy's Nicola Fontanive. "We can't change history. We have to come out tomorrow and win."
France opened the scoring at 4:34 when assistant captain Amar took a great centering pass from Stéphane Da Costa behind the goal line and snapped it high over Bellissimo.
A couple of minutes later, Lhenry was alert to stop Giulio Scandella, who got a step on the French defence and fired a swift, low shot into the netminder's pads. Lhenry stayed sharp as the Italians outshot France 9-5 in the first period.
In the second period, the Italians kept pressing for the equalizer on their first power play during a holding penalty to Nicolas Besch. But they could only generate flurries around the French net, including a nice right-wing rush and backhand move by Luca Ansoldi.
"We tried to use our speed and forecheck to create our chances," noted France's Amar. "We wanted to keep the puck to the outside and not get fancy."
With about seven minutes left in the middle frame, France nearly took a two-goal lead when Gras's shot squeezed through Bellissimo, but the Italian defenders managed to sweep the puck away from the goal line before any damage was done.
The chances kept coming but neither side could capitalize. With less than four minutes before the buzzer, France's Anthoine Lussier stickhandled in on a breakaway, but lost control of the puck at the last instant. Coming back the other way, Italy's Giorgio de Bettin zinged one off Lhenry's crossbar.
An early third-period power play saw France go up 2-0 at 3:14 when Gras barged to the front of the net, whacking in the second rebound from Kevin Hecquefeuille's point shot before flying through the air.
The Italians got a glorious opportunity to get on the board with a short 5-on-3 man advantage. Just as it turned into a 5-on-4, Strazzabosco's drive from the center point beat Lhenry five-hole to make it a 2-1 game with 8:56 remaining.
Unfortunately, Strazzabosco took a late tripping minor that hurt his team's chances of coming back. Gras had a great chance for his second of the night on a breakaway, but Bellissimo said no. Regardless, it was too late for Italy, which pulled its netminder for the extra attacker to no avail.
"Their goalie was their best player, but one goal is not good enough," said Fontanive. "We have to be able to score more goals if we expect to win."
Although this game was sparsely attended, fans in the stands generated their own atmosphere by pairing up with tournament mascot Urmel for some of the most demonstrative dancing yet seen at the 2010 tournament.