With shootout victories over Latvia and Finland and a regulation win over Germany, things have gone very well for Kazakhstan as the Central Asian nation eyes its first ever quarter-final berth at the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. Entering the game as the prohibitive favourites for the first time in this tournament, Kazakhstan was given a bit of a scare by Italy in the first half of the game but eventually broke it open and prevailed 11-3, thanks in part to five power-play goals.
“We played well for two periods but what shouldn’t happen are these stupid penalties that cost us goals,” a disheartened Italian captain Daniel Frank said after the game. “This must not happen.”
Leading the offence was captain Roman Starchenko with 5 points (2+3), Curtis Valk with 4 (1+3) and Artyom Likhotnikov with 3 (2+1). Nine different Kazakh players scored goals and 17 of the 20 skaters recorded at least a point. Alex Petan had a goal and an assist for Italy.
“We knew it’s going to be a tough game especially the start and after playing yesterday,” said Valk. “We found a good start and found our legs a bit and pulled it away. It feels good to be rewarded and see some guys score goals. The guys are having a lot of fun. We came here with the attitude that we’re kind of the underdogs and come into every game to win.”
Kazakhstan got an early power play when Stefano Giliati went off for holding at 2:03 and it took them just nine seconds to capitalize. From down low, Valk found Starchenko at the back door and it was 1-0 on the game’s first shot on goal.
But that kind of offence wasn’t indicative of what was to come in the first period, as the Italians ground the flow to a near halt. Shots were just 6-5 Italy after 20 minutes.
Italy drew even at 24:37 when Petan found Angelo Miceli with a backand pass, and the HC Bolzano forward made no mistake, using his long reach to beat Nikita Boyarkin on the forehand deke.
“I thought we were in it, even the shots were not as bad in the other games,” said Miceli. “We played two good periods and had a letdown in the third. It’s high-level of hockey and you cannot take a shift off and we took a period off. We had penalty trouble and that cost us.”
It remained tied past the game’s midpoint but the Kazakhs regained the lead and gave themselves a bit of breathing room with two goals 2:28 apart. After some sustained pressure in the Italian zone, Alikhan Asetov found Yegor Petukhov wide open in front, and he easily beat a sprawling Justin Fazio.
“The Italian players weren’t covering me very well, and it was very free around the net,” Petukhov explained. “Alikhan made the pass and I scored the goal. This goal didn’t decide the game. There was still a lot of time in front of us, so I kept my emotions inside but I was very happy.”
Then from a tight angle, Yevgeni Rymarov was able to pick the near-side top corner over Fazio’s left shoulder to make it 3-1.
“I wasn’t planning to shoot from there but the goalie fell down and that created some room upstairs, so I went for it and hit it,” Rymarov smiled.
“We knew that we were stronger and had more skilled players, but they defended against us very well,” said Kazakh coach Yuri Mikhailis. “But then once we scored the second and third goals, things started to go better. After that, the guys relaxed, started making better passes and nice combinations.”
Down by two goals, the Italians had a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:25 late in the second period and desperately needed a goal to get themselves back into the game. They came close, but just couldn’t find the back of the net.
“They key moment of the game was the last minutes of the second period,” said coach Mikhailis. “I’m very glad that the two units of three on the PK killed it very well and the goalkeeper played very well.”
The teams traded goals in the second minute of the third period. On the power play, Starchenko found Nikita Mikhailis for the tap-in at the far post for his third goal in two games to make it 4-1 Kazakhstan, but 22 seconds later Peter Hochkofter put a backhander over Boyarkin to make it a two-goal game again.
But Kazakhstan broke the game open with three goals in a span of 3:34 to make it a 7-2 game. First it was Valk with another power-play goal, then a pair of goals by Likhotnikov, with showing his speed and soft hands with a couple of nice goals.
“We kind of dropped down physically, we looked tired and were late,” said Italian coach Giorgio de Bettin. “After these three goals in the third period we mentally gave up. We have to analyze what happened but the main reason is we were physically tired in the end and couldn’t keep up with them.”
At that point, Fazio was mercifully pulled in favour of Davide Fadani, giving the youngster half a period of work. But the Kazakhs showed no mercy on him either. After Petan got Italy’s third goal, Kirill Panyukov, Starchenko, Viktor Svedberg and Yegor Shalapov on a two-man advantage rounded out the scoring. In the third period, four of Kazakhstan’s eight goals came on the power play
The loss leaves the Italians still searching for their first points of the tournament, while Kazakhstan is now second in Group B with 10 points in six games. Italy still has games against Canada and the USA remaining, while the Kazakhs finish up against Norway.
“We play tomorrow and have to forget today,” Miceli said about Italy’s game against Canada. “We have to stick together as a group and keep our heads high, bounce back and play with pride.”
“The mood on the team is very good right now,” said Rymarev. “We’re happy with every win but our emotions are in control because our work isn’t finished. We will approach the next game as we do the others, play our game and try to win.”