GOYANG – In the most exciting battle for promotion to the top division in recent years, Austria, Japan and Slovenia will play it out for the right to play in the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Prague and Ostrava, Czech Republic.
Since 2009 earning promotion from Division I to the top division has been a ticket to an elevator ride: go up, and then down again. Italy and Kazakhstan won in odd years, Austria and Slovenia in even.
There were indications that this could be the year for a new country to step up, since top-seeded Austria and Slovenia came to Korea with weaker teams than the ones they iced two months earlier at the Olympics. In case of Austria it’s a restart without several veteran players following disciplinary issues off the ice in Sochi. Slovenia missed several players who are busy in the playoffs, not only Anze Kopitar in the NHL but also other key players like Ziga Jeglic, Robert Sabolic, Ales Kranjc and Rok Ticar, who are engaged in the German final series.
This opened opportunities for other teams who dream of playing with the elite nations. Hungary, Korea and Ukraine were close to make the two favourites stumble, but didn’t earn the wins they hoped for.
But there’s one team that can still prevent Austria’s and Slovenia’s return. For the first time since being relegated in 2004, the Japanese are still in the race for promotion on the last day. If the Japanese earn promotion by finishing first or second, it would be their best overall World Championship placement from Division I / B-Pool play since 1994 (16th) and 1995 (18th).
“In the past we lost the first games and didn’t have a chance,” said Aaron Keller, the Canada-born defenceman who has been playing in Japan since 2002, and since the 2004/2005 season for the national team.
In the past Japan mostly failed to score upsets. The difference this year was the 2-1 opening day win against Slovenia while the players from the land of the rising sun got the necessary victories against the lower-seeded teams Korea and Ukraine.
“It’s an exciting time for us to play this last game to move up to the top division,” said long-time head coach Mark Mahon. “It’s the first time for us, so it’s an exciting time for Japanese hockey.”
Japan just needs one win – in regulation time, overtime or shootout – against Hungary to seal promotion on its own and independently from the outcome of the Austria-Slovenia game. If they lose, they will need Austria to beat Slovenia in regulation time (or in overtime/shootout if Japan loses to Hungary in overtime/shootout).
Although Hungary has a 1-3 record at this tournament and cannot medal anymore in Goyang, it won’t be an easy task for Japan. Hungary won the last four World Championship Division I games against Japan, the Asians’ last win was back in 2006.
Can the defensively stable and offensively fast-skating Japanese overcome a Hungarian team that wants to finish on a high note in front of its partisan supporters who travelled all the way to Korea? If so, history would be made. Although Japan has a history of participation in the top-level World Championship in 1930, 1957 and from 1998 to 2004, the Far East nation has never earned promotion to the top level through lower divisions in 50 years.
Austria, still undefeated and leading the group with ten points, can secure Division I gold with a win against neighbour Slovenia. It would be sweet revenge for the 4-0 rout in the qualification playoff game in Sochi that led to a turbulent aftermath for the team and the association. If Japan loses to Hungary, Austria will be promoted no matter of the score against Slovenia.
“We don’t think about the math. We want to beat Slovenia and earn the tournament win. We will stick to our system that has brought us success in this tournament,” said Mario Fischer after Friday’s practice.
“Against Slovenia we want to play well on defence from the beginning and not be behind like against Korea and Hungary,” Markus Schlacher added.
Slovenia enters the last day of the tournament as the third-ranked team with nine points but with the disadvantage of having lost the head-to-head game against Japan, which has earned nine points as well. The Slovenes will need to earn at least one point more from their game against Austria than Japan does against Hungary. A win in overtime or shootout can be enough (if Japan doesn’t earn two points as well) and with a regulation-time win the Slovenes would earn promotion from their own force.
“The promotion is our goal. We showed after the first game [against Japan] that we have character and we bounced back,” Bostjan Golicic said. “We have to play better on the penalty kill and get less penalties.”
The loss versus Japan is a burden in the pre-game math for Slovenia but at least the record looks promising having won the last two games in IIHF play, two months ago in Sochi and in 2012’s Division I Group A on home ice in Ljubljana, 3-2. Austria’s last win in the cross-alpine clash came at the 2011 IIHF World Championship, a 3-2 relegation-round win. A fierce rivalry will be guaranteed for hockey fans watching the game in Goyang or on TV especially if Japan manages to write history in the early game.
In the evening game Korea will play Ukraine and hopes to end the tournament on home ice with a win despite not being able to move away from last place.