COLOGNE – Not in his wildest dreams did Italy coach Rick Cornacchia ever imagine he’d face the United States in the final Relegation Round game at the IIHF World Championship.
“Never in a million years,” said Cornacchia. “What are the chances of that happening?”
It is happening on Tuesday when the relegation pool ends with the Italians and the Americans facing off in Cologne, while France faces Kazakhstan in Mannheim.
It would take a collapse of epic proportions for the U.S. to be demoted to the IIHF’s second tier and play against the likes of Great Britain or Spain.
The U.S. has six points going into the final day of relegation pool competition and the Americans need one point to win the relegation round and tie their worst-ever 13th place from 2003.
France and the Italy are locked at three points apiece, and Kazakhstan does not have any points.
There is a chance of a three-way tie atop the standings – Italy and France both win their games in regulation time - and Cornacchia tried to do the math to figure out the different scenarios by which the USA would drop down.
But he gave up thinking of the possibilities.
“You would never think of the U.S. being in the relegation pool,” said Cornacchia, who coached Canada at the 1992 World Junior Championship in Füssen, Germany.
“They do not belong here, especially when you look at them on paper.”
A paper team, however, never suffered from the lack goal scoring that struck the U.S. in the Preliminary Round, when the Americans scored four goals in three losses to pave the way to the relegation pool.
But with demotion facing them, the American scorers found the mark. The United State beat Kazakhstan 10-0 and followed with a 4-0 victory over France.
The odds are stacked against the Italians and they know it.
“For us it will be the biggest game of the year and we will do everything we can to finish the World Championship with six points,” said Italian forward Roland Ramoser. “Sure it is a pressure game and we all know it will be hard.
“We are a team that is always fighting to survive and that is what we are doing now.”
Italy and Kazakhstan won promotion last year and the odds don’t favour them from dropping down again.
Ramoser said a 2-1 loss to France in the first game of the Relegation Round could wind up being difference between staying in the elite group and going back to the Division I.
“I think we should have done better against France, and France is a team at our level. And we should have won that game and would not be in the situation we are in now,” he said.
Cornacchia was more basic in breaking down what went wrong.
“We can’t score goals and that is an unbelievable problem,” said Cornacchia. “We are playing at a level our players are not used to playing. But the key is we do not have enough scorers. Bottom line is a lot of my guys are third-line guys in the (Italian) league and we are asking them to step up and be goal scorers.”
That the Italians are struggling on offence will be the sound of music to the Americans.
If Italy beats the United States by at least eight goals and France wins in regulation, then the Americans are headed south to second tier of world hockey. Otherwise they finish the pool in first or second place.
Meanwhile, France needs to gain at least as many points as Italy on Tuesday to stay up. If both France and Italy win their games in regulation time to create the three-way tie with the United States, France will be relegated unless Italy beats the USA by eight goals.
The Italians need to gain more points than France on Tuesday to maintain in the top division after losing the head-to-head match against France. But all that changes if they beat the USA by eight goals to win the group.
Kazakhstan has only a chance of staying up if they beat France by at least two goals and Italy loses in regulation time against the United States. In that case, both France and Italy would be relegated.
You can bet that Cornacchia never imagined this scenario playing itself out.