It was a long time in coming. 447 minutes, 42 seconds to be precise. That’s the time played in top level World Championship action between Italy’s last goal at the 2017 World Championship and its first here in Slovakia. But, just over two minutes into the third period against Norway, the Azzurri’s journey through the parched, goalless inferno ended with a fleeting glimpse of the promised land.
Armin Helfer fired the puck in from the top of the circle, Angelo Miceli got in front of Stefan Espelund and steered it past Henrik Holm. Then came uncertainty: a video review, the purgatory before paradise. The puck flew into the net off Miceli’s skate, evidence of a kicking motion would rule out the goal. The arena held its breath … and the goal was given, to the approval of most of the crowd.
"We had one called back earlier in the tournament," reflected Italian defenceman Sean McMonagle. "So when they went to review, it was a 'Here we go again!' type of a feeling. But luckily, it was a good goal. It's been a really difficult tournament for us, but to have Ang get rewarded with a goal and for us to get on the board was good."
It couldn’t save the game. Norway had taken a 2-0 lead seconds before Miceli’s magic moment and Michael Haga steered Thomas Valkvae Olsen’s feed past Andreas Bernard to make it 3-1 less than two minutes later. Tobias Lindstrom then found it all a bit too easy to surge down the left and flip a backhand shot inside Bernard’s near post to add a fourth. But the goal did salvage some Italian pride – and keep Clayton Beddoes’ team believing ahead of its do-or-die relegation showdown against Austria on Monday.
"It's kinda hard to believe that we're in that situation still, given the way things have gone for us," added Sean McMonagle. "So you gotta be as mentally tough as possible. Some of these really tough losses, you gotta try to forget about them fast. Because if you pull one good game together, you stay up, which is a huge feat."
Norway, meanwhile, books its ticket to next year's tournament in Switzerland with this victory. But even after a 7-1 win, defenceman Christian Bull acknowledged that this was not always easy against the Italians. "They have a good system," Bull said. "Maybe we had a little bit of a panic there, we needed to stay more focussed and wait for our opportunities. We did that in the end and it went pretty well. The way we ended the game was almost perfect.
"Now we've kept our place in the A Group and we're very happy with that."
Take, for example, the noise as Angelo Miceli went through on goal midway through the first period. His shot went into Henrik Holm’s pads and Simon Kostner raced onto the follow-up but could not stuff the puck home. The crowd got up, hoping that the outsider could make a game of this one.
However, it was an isolated incident. Norway, without achieving total control over the game, was always on top. And that advantage took tangible form in the 16th minute when Erlend Lesund’s point shot met the outstretched stick of Alexander Reichenberg. The forward redirected the puck across the face of Andreas Bernard and into the top corner.
"You always go out there and try to score," Reichenberg said. "Today it happened, so I'm grateful for that. But it was a pretty tight game in the beginning and we needed that 1-0 lead. In the third period I think we took over the whole game and it all went our way. We got a lot of goals, but it was tight before that."
Italy’s best opportunity to generate offence – in the tournament to date, not merely in this game – came early in the second. Penalties for Christian Bull and Andreas Martinsen only gave 11 seconds of 5-on-3 play for the Azzurri, but with almost a full four minutes on the power play this was the Italians’ chance to spend an extended period of time around the opposition net.
However, the scoring chances didn’t follow. Italy managed only a couple of shots on Holm’s net and the sluggish response when Marco Insam thudded a slap shot into Holm’s chest illustrated one of the team’s key problems: despite a big rebound, it was the shorthanded Norwegians who were first to the loose puck. Italy waited, Norway acted.
Decision-making played a part as well. Tommaso Traversa led an odd-man rush that threatened to expose the Norwegian net. However, he opted to shoot when Raphael Andergassen looked well positioned to receive a pass to the inside and get Holm moving across his crease. The goalie got behind the shot, the chance was gone. Holm also snuffed out another breakaway involving Kostner and Miceli. Italy was getting looks but couldn’t extend the Stavanger Oilers goalie.
At least, though, Italy was not pinned down under the weight of an opposing attack generating wave after wave of pressure on Andreas Bernard’s net. The Italian goalie made yet another sharp save to deny Patrick Thoresen at the back door late in the second period but faced just seven shots in the frame – a rare moment of respite for the hard-working Assat shot-stopper in this tournament.
It didn’t last. Norway increased its lead at the start of the third when Mathias Trettenes smashed home a one-timer from between the hash marks. And after that memorable Italian goal, Norway moved up through the gears, replying with two quick markers of its own. As the scoring slowed, there was still time for Sondre Olsen to bat a Jonas Holos slap shot to add another. Martin Roymark raced through to make it 6-1 in the 52nd minute and a last-minute power play goal from Espeland made the final score 7-1.
"For sure we had a real tough start," Reichenberg said, reflecting on Norway's recovery from a tough start. "You just have to start over again. You know we can win. So it's good that we've won two games in a row. It gives us some confidence before the last game. Hopefully we'll take that one too."