STOCKHOLM – Returning to the Top Division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship after a one-year absence, Italy’s primary goal is survival. Although this year’s tournament will also determine seeding for the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Italians, currently 17th in the IIHF World Ranking, surely won’t be able to book their tickets for 2014 by moving up to ninth or better in that ranking.
With hard work and attention to defence, the Azzurri may be able to avoid relegation for the first time since Moscow 2007, when they came 12th. However, the challenge they face this time is greater than five years ago, simply due to the new World Championship format.
In 2007, the Italians dodged the horrors of the Relegation Round when Jason Cirone’s overtime goal lifted them to a 4-3 victory over Latvia in their third game, the Preliminary Round closer. But as of this year, there’s no more Qualification Round or Relegation Round. With the new seven-game round-robin in the Preliminary Round, winning one game out of your first three no longer ensures salvation. Italy faces a long, tough grind.
Veteran netminders Thomas Tragust and Daniel Bellissimo will vie for the starting role in Stockholm. At last year’s Division I tournament, Tragust posted a shutout in each of his two appearances. But it was the Toronto-born Bellissimo who got the call in the crucial, closing 4-3 overtime win over Hungary, making 45 saves. This season, Bellissimo earned a 2.23 GAA and 92.3 save percentage with Bofors IK of the Swedish second tier. Promising 21-year-old Andreas Bernard, who’s honing his skills with the SaiPa Laappenranta organization in Finland’s SM-Liiga, is the third goaltender.
The mobile and savvy Armin Helfer, who spent most of this season with Thurgau of the Swiss B League before returning to Italy for the playoff run, is poised to appear in his eighth IIHF World Championship dating back to St. Petersburg 2000. Christian Borgatello is coming off a championship run with the Bolzano Foxes in which the 30-year-old recorded 12 points in 12 games. However, don’t expect a ton of offensive punch from this blueline corps at the elite level. Good positioning in the defensive zone will be a must to compensate for lesser foot speed against their rivals. Former New Jersey Devils prospect Matt DeMarchi, who suited up for Västerås in Sweden this season, will provide a certain physical dimension at 86 kg and 191 cm.
In Germany 2010, the Italians registered a paltry six goals in eight games, and there’s little reason to believe that their pace will improve this year. Look for whatever scoring there is to come principally from Italo-Canadians like Giulio Scandella, whose 25 goals paced Serie A finalists Pustertal Bruneck this year, and Pat Iannone, making his third Top Division appearance after a strong season with Pontebba. The hard work and defensive conscience of 33-year-old centre Manuel de Toni should also help to set the right tone.
Head coach Rick Cornacchia has guided the Italian national team since Germany 2010. The brightest accomplishment on his 61-year-old’s coaching résumé is capturing the 1990 Memorial Cup with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, which featured such future NHLers as Eric Lindros, Mike Craig, and Fred Brathwaite. His assistant coaches are John Parco, a recently retired national team forward who played 12 seasons with Asiago, and Fabio Polloni, who has done everything from coaching the U20 squad to assisting with Italy’s 2006 Olympic team.
Realistically, to avoid finishing last in the Stockholm-based Group B and getting sent down, the Italians must find a way to beat at least one of four nations – Germany, Latvia, Denmark, or Norway – in their first four games. It’s unlikely they’ll secure any points against the Czechs, Swedes, and Russians in the home stretch of the round-robin. Unless you’re a true believer in the Azzurri, the safest bet is that they’ll be destined for Division I by the time May 15 rolls around.