In 1994, Italy hosted the IIHF World Championship and finished sixth, its best-ever result. Twenty years later, the Italians can only pray to avoid relegation.
The Azzurri secured promotion to the elite division in Belarus with a second-place finish at the 2013 Division I Group A tournament in Budapest, Hungary. The key victory was a 2-1 nail-biter over the host nation.
American-born coach Tom Pokel knows his team will need a similar gritty effort if it’s to avoid getting swatted around by top-end Group A opponents like Canada and Sweden in Minsk. The Italians currently sit eighteenth in the IIHF World Ranking.
Adam Dennis, who earned Best Goalie Honours at last year’s Division I Group A tournament with his 0.75 GAA in three games, will not suit up in Minsk due to hip problems. Losing the Dornbirner EC (Austria) netminder, who won the 2005 Memorial Cup as an OHL star with Corey Perry’s London Knights versus Sidney Crosby’s Rimouski Oceanic, is a significant blow.
The absence of Dennis opens the door for veteran Daniel Bellissimo. The 29-year-old Italo-Canadian only appeared in nine games for Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League this year, but with two top-level World Championships (2010, 2012) under his belt, he’s the most experienced available netminder.
Andreas Bernard, who backed up Dennis in 2013 in Division I, could get more of an opportunity this time. Bernard, 23, played for the SaiPa Lappeenranta organization in Finland’s Liiga for the fourth time in the last five seasons, amassing a 2.40 GAA and .898 save percentage in 14 games.
The bottom line is that anyone between the pipes for this team can’t expect much protection. At the 2012 Worlds, Italy allowed an average of just under 40 shots on goal, and its netminders combined for a 4.42 GAA, fourth-worst overall.
Pokel will need to lean on several veteran blueliners for offensive help, including the likes of Christian Borgatello, Trevor Johnson, and Armin Hofer.
Borgatello, 32, has a knack for seizing the moment, famously scoring with 1:32 left in a 3-3 tie with Germany when Italy hosted the 2006 Olympics. The offensive-minded, Canadian-born Johnson, also 32, has worn Italian colours since 2008-09, and contributed three assists in Division I play last year. Hofer, 27, brings a good point shot, and potted a career-high nine goals for HC Pustertal Bruneck this season.
As usual, the Italian defence will likely struggle overall to contain the speed, strength, and skill of the top-tier teams.
With longtime Italian league star Pat Iannone not active this season, scoring will need to come from other sources up front. Newcomers could have an impact. Brian Ihnacak, the son of former Czech NHLer Peter Ihnacak and nephew of Miroslav Ihnacak, led Italy’s Elite A this year with 35 goals and 81 points for Valpellice. Right wing Diego Kostner, 21, posted career highs of six goals and 13 in 41 games with Lugano in his sophomore season in the Swiss NLA.
There are also some familiar names. Winger Giulio Scandella, the older brother of current Minnesota Wild defenceman Marco Scandella, can still deliver the goods, contributing 16 points in Val Pusteria’s 16 playoff games this season. The diminutive but flashy Nicola Fontanive cracked the top 10 in Elite A scoring with a personal-best 21 goals and 32 assists for Milano Rossoblu.
Head coach Tom Pokel brings an impressively varied background to his first elite division World Championship. The 46-year-old native of Green Bay, Wisconsin coached in Germany (1995-2004) and Austria (2004-09) before coming to Italy. This year, he earned a championship title with HC Bolzano, which now competes in Austria’s EBEL. Bolzano defeated Red Bull Salzburg in the finals.
Pokel’s personal motto is “Defence wins championships.” He will preach attention to detail in the defensive zone, because without it, Italy simply won’t be able to compete at this level. Point in case: in 2012, the Italians suffered shutout losses by margins of three or more goals against Germany, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Russia. They just don’t have anyone comparable to Pokel’s favourite defenceman, Bobby Orr.
Assisting Pokel will be Fabio Polloni. The 61-year-old former Cortina forward has served as an assistant coach at four top-level Worlds and the 2006 Olympics in Turin. He was Italy’s head coach in Canada 2008.
Italy will try to inject some new, younger players into the lineup, and that may pay dividends in the long term. But it could also make life difficult for Italy in Minsk. The Italians must make some headway in their first three games against Norway, France and Denmark, because as this tournament wears on, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to skate with the top-end Group A contenders.
Avoiding relegation for the first time since 2007 is the goal, but it’s a long shot.