For the first time since a three-year stint from 2006 to 2008, Italy will remain in the top group of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship after a dramatic shootout victory over Austria – a team that was aiming to stay up for a third straight year but instead will be relegated to the Division I Group A in 2020.
Sean McMonagle was the hero in the seventh round of the shootout, making a beautiful move to his backhand to beat David Kickert upstairs on the glove side.
"Crazy!" McMonagle exclaimed. "In hockey, the emotional highs and lows you go through are crazy. I missed the first one, which I was upset about. I thought I had a lot of net and just didn't make it count. And then, you get rewarded with another opportunity shortly afterwards and I was able to finish that one. So it's an awesome feeling."
This was a match-up between two of the World Championship's regular "elevator" teams, with both teams entering this game having lost their first six games in regulation time.
Through 65 minutes of hockey, Austria outshot Italy 41-22, including 6-2 in overtime. Andreas Bernard, one of the tournament's busier goalies, made 38 saves.
“It’s unbelievable!” said a relieved Bernard. “I think this has been the toughest week of my life. 10-0, 8-0 … but thanks to my goalie coach, he just kept telling me, ‘You can’t save everything,’ and kept encouraging me every game. We knew we had a chance against the Austrians and we did it today. It was a great team effort.”
Michael Raffl scored two goals for Austria, both assisted by linemate Fabio Hofer, while defenceman Clemens Unterweger also had two assists. Anthony Bardaro, Simon Kostner and Marco Rosa all scored for Italy, quadrupling the team's goal output for the tournament.
"It means we are going back down to the B Pool," said a disappointed captain Thomas Raffl. "It's just going to be a desperate time again. You know what? We've just got to stand up again, move up, try to win the B Pool next year, and then make sure we get back to the A."
"I think we knew all along this was the game that we needed to be ready to play, to have our game at that top level," said Bardaro. "For me personally, I think our line with me, Miceli, and Kostner was working right from the start of the game. We just felt good out there. It's just an exciting night!"
That lead didn’t last long, however. Just 1:26 later, Unterweger’s slap shot from the point hit the right pad of Bernard, but Manuel Ganahl got to the rebound and fired a backhander on a sharp incline up and over the Italian goalie’s shoulder.
With just under four minutes left in the opening period, Hofer fed a pass to Michael Raffl, who scored a great goal to give his team the lead. With Italian defenceman Ivan Tauferer draped over his back, the Philadelphia Flyers forward faked to his backhand to draw Bernard to his left, and then wrapped around his pad on the forehand while falling to the ice.
For the second time in the game, the festive Italian fans in attendance had a chance to dance and sing, and they almost got a third chance just seconds later when Alexander Rauchenwald skated in alone on Bernard, beat him to the backhand but was in too deep and could only backhand a shot through the crease and out the other side.
The Austrians kept coming and drew the game’s first power play with 1:02 to play, but despite some great chances, particularly Raphael Hergurger’s attempted buzzer-beater. Staring at a yawning cage, the Red Bull Salzburg centre took a swing and a miss at a cross-ice pass just before time expired, then dropped to his knee and looked skyward. After the end-to-end action that dominated the last half of the first period, the start of the second period was once again slow, despite the teams trading power plays. In the 28th minute, Peter Schneider feathered a pass on a 2-on-1 but Raffl fanned on the one-time attempt.
The Italians had no offence at all in the first half of the period but managed some shots in the latter minutes and scored a couple of goals. First, Angelo Miceli made a nice play to feed Simon Kostner in the high slot, who then beat Kickert to the glove side with a fine wrist shot. Moments later, Miceli had a chance of his own but couldn’t catch up to a breakaway pass before it got to Kickert.
The go-ahead goal for Italy came with just over a minute to go in the middle frame. Marco Rosa won a battle for the puck in the corner, faked a pass to an open man and elected to shoot, firing a wrister of Kickert’s arm and in.
Needing to win the next period to prolong their stay in the elite group, Austria came out storming in the third period and just 1:45 in, Michael Raffl got his second beautiful goal of the game. From behind the net, Hofer found his favourite target in front, as usual with an Italian defenceman holding on to him, but no matter – this time, Raffl went to his backhand to beat Bernard.
From there, the teams started trading chances back and forth, with each knowing that one more goal against could see them demoted.
Both teams had power plays in the third period but failed to convert, and for the second time today, a head-to-head game to avoid relegation was going to overtime.
Austria dominated the extra period, with Konstantin Komarek agonizingly close to ending it after beating Bernard in tight but was unable to backhand the puck into the unguarded net, instead putting it back into the goalie. So, it went to a shootout.
"I was like, 'Holy [censored]!'" Bernard laughed. It was an empty net and I was thinking 'No! No! No! No! No!' It was a fight mentally. It was tough the whole game."
In the first six rounds, each team produced two goals. Peter Schneider was Austria's seventh shooter and was stopped by Bernard, setting the stage for an unlikely hero. McMonagle, a former centre who converted to defence, showed his offensive abilities with a great move to end his team's tournament on a high note.
"It was weird. I think we all kind of had a funny feeling he was going to score," said Bernard. "As soon as it went in, we just erupted. I don't even know what happened! I kind of blacked out, I think."
"We're used to hearing the other squad's anthems," said McMonagle. "Especially this tournament, we weren't very close, actually, in any other game. So it's really nice to finish on a high. At the end of the day, we have a long way to go. We're far behind a lot of the top teams in the world, of course, but it's a nice consolation prize to stay up. It's been a long time since Italy's been able to do it. So we're all pretty excited."