Neither team had a chance to win Group D and qualify for the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of pride at stake on the rosters of Poland and Austria as they faced off on the final day of the tournament.
Thanks to a three goals from Brian Lebler, the Austrians earned a 4-1 victory, allowing them to finish on a high note after suffering two previous defeats.
“After two tough games, our goal was to win this game,” said forward Raphael Herburger. “Even though it didn’t matter, we’re a proud Austrian team. In the previous games, we had some bad moments so we wanted to play the full game, and Brian had three nice goals, which gave us a very good chance to win.”
And though the Poles finished with a loss, they frankly hadn’t been expected to seriously threaten to qualify anyway. Their tournament was made with Thursday’s 1-0 win over Belarus, and the fact that they entered Friday night’s game against Slovakia with a chance to qualify was in itself a major accomplishment.
“This was our worst game,” said forward Grzegorsz Pasiut. “The games against Belarus and Slovakia were very tough for us and we had problems with concentration.”
Austria dominated the early minutes and opened the scoring off the rush at 4:10, with Peter Schneider finding Manuel Ganahl in front for the finishing touch.
The first 10 minutes were owned by the Austrians, who would go on to outshoot Poland 11-2 in the opening period. However, the second of those shots was a breakaway by Maciej Urbanowicz, who got in behind the Austrian defence, skated in on David Kickert and found some room between the pads to tie the score just shy of the 12-minute mark.
A couple of minutes later, Poland very nearly took the lead when Grzegorz Pasiut hit the goalpost.
Ultimately, it looked like the Poles might be lucky enough to escape the first period tied, but with just under a minute to go, Lebler managed to fish the puck out from a disorganized scramble in the slot and pound it past John Murray to make it 2-1 Austria after one.
“We knew going in we needed to get pucks in deep and play simple,” said Lebler. “We got in a little trouble against Belarus, playing too aggressive at times, so that’s what we wanted to avoid today and I think we did a good job.”
“I think the Slovakia game took its toll on us,” said Urbanovich. “Today, their players had more energy during the game and we were slower than the Austrians. During the second period, we had opportunities to change things.”
After being back on their heels most of the first period, Poland came out with better energy in the second period and, thanks to a couple of power plays, had some good puck possession and attacking-zone time in the first half of the middle frame. Kickert, who stood still for most of the first period, was finally called into action.
The Poles were unable to capitalize on their chances, however. After Aron Chmielewski found himself all alone in front of Kickert and backhanded the puck just wide, Austria came back quickly the other way and Liebler scored his second of the game, beating Murray to the near side with 5:22 to go.
Poland didn’t quit and came back with some pressure in the third period, particularly on a power play in the middle part of the frame, but Lebler completed his hat trick with 6:57 to go, taking a feed from Dominik Zwerger and beating Murray with a quick shot.
“I don’t know if that was my first hat trick with the national team or not,” said Lebler, who scored five of Austria’s seven goals in the tournament. “I just try to get in the right spots and playing with Zwerger and (Marco) Rossi, they’re skilled guys and their hockey sense is very high. They have the puck most of the time and I just try to get open and we were able to connect a few times.”
While neither team entered the game with a chance to qualify for the Olympics, the outcome does have an influence on Group D’s final game beween Slovakia and Belarus. Had Poland beaten Austria in reguation time, the possibility of a three-way tie for first place would have existed and Belarus would have needed a victory by three or more goals to win on goal difference. Now that that possibility no longer exists, Belarus merely needs to win in regulation time.