France recovers from slow start
by Andy Potts|26 AUG 2021
Alexandre Texier celebrates a goal.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Team France started its Olympic Qualification bid with a win – but Les Bleus had to work hard to overcome Hungary. The opening game of Olympic Qualification Group E in Latvia was a roller-coaster ride as the outsider jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period. In the end, France bounced back to take control in the second period and secure a 5-3 verdict.

Columbus forward Alexandre Texier was the key man, with two goals and an assist in the French fightback, while experienced centre Sacha Treille was instrumental as a screen in front of the Hungarian net and got a deserved goal of his own.

Not that Texier is getting carried away with a player-of-the-game display on his first appearance here. "We played a good game, but this is just one win," he said. "We have to get back here tomorrow and play even better, just keep moving forwards."

Neither team played any competitive international hockey last season due to the cancellation of the lower divisions of the World Championship, and it was the Hungarians who settled into this game fastest. Despite coming to Riga as outsiders, the Magyars swiftly showed that they were not just here to make up the numbers. Up against a French team with three NHLers and one of the leading KHL scorers of recent seasons, Hungary upset the formbook to blaze into a 2-0 lead.

The French were under pressure early on, forced to kill a third-minute penalty on Valentin Claireaux, and the Magyars took a firm grip of the initiative. Hungary outshot the pre-game favourite and delivered two quick goals. Janos Hari was involved in both, combining with his line-mates Istvan Sofron and Csanad Erdely to open the scoring, then setting up a power play goal for University of Michigan prospect Kristof Papp to double the lead. Suddenly the shock was very much on.

"We felt we had a really good first period," said Hungary's head coach Sean Simpson. "We're disappointed that we lost the game from there."

The French were in their first competitive game since May 2019, and Philippe Bozon’s team looked short of chemistry. But the intermission gave a vital chance to regroup. The message was simple – get more shots to the net and apply pressure to a Hungarian defence that was rarely tested in the early exchanges. The first power play of the game for Les Bleus was just the opportunity they wanted. The shots came flying in – Stephane da Costa twice, Alexandre Texier twice more – before the breakthrough arrived. Sacha Treille’s screen gave Zoltan Hetenyi no chance to see the puck as Texier released his third shot and found the net on 23:09.

"It was really difficult [to come together after two years]," said head coach Bozon. "That was our main concern. The fact that we went down [from the Elite Pool] was even worse after COVID because we couldn't get to a World Championship. We're playing in this tournament, at this level, and in two years we only had one game that we could say was a high-level game to prepare the group.

"But we have experienced players. They play in many countries and they were able to keep playing. It was important that those guys could keep going at a high level; you can see they are in shape."

That early goal changed the pattern of play, with Hungary’s first-period advantage disappearing in the face of a renewed French onslaught. Another crowd scene in front of the net invited Antonin Manavian to unleash a shot that deflected into the net to tie it up on 28:00.

And the relentless pressure continued, with Hungary penned into its own end for long periods. France’s physicality won frequent turnovers and the Hungarians ran into penalty trouble. Another French PP saw the effervescent Texier get his second of the game, with Treille once again putting up an immense screen in front of Hetenyi. Then came a big chance as Texier turned provider for Charles Bertrand to angle a shot that had the goalie scrambling to clear. In the final seconds of the frame, Hetenyi was exposed once again as Tim Bozon – son of head coach Philippe – skated through and dinged one off the post. After being outshot 6-11 in the first period, France responded with an 18-3 advantage in the second.

Early in the third, Treille got the goal he deserved as another French power play delivered the goods. The vastly-experienced Grenoble forward adopted his accustomed position in front of Hetenyi and this time he potted the rebound from Florian Chakiachvili’s point shot to make it 4-2.

However, if the French thought that put the game to bed, they were woken up immediately. Just 10 seconds after Treille’s goal, Istvan Bartalis danced his way through the French defence to beat Florian Hardy and make it a one-goal game yet again. And there were more difficulties for France to navigate as a penalty on Nicolas Ritz gave Hungary its first power play chance since that 15th-minute Papp goal. However, brave forechecking from Jordann Perret snuffed out the opportunity and the lead remained intact as the game went into the final minutes.

"In that third period we played well again," Simpson added. "We had our chances to make it 4-4 and maybe get something out of the game. It didn't quite work out but I'm proud of our guys tonight. They played a real strong hockey game, and we got penalized for taking a few too many penalties and making a couple of mistakes. That's the way it goes at this level."

Hungary still created chances. Balint Magosi’s shot looped off Hardy’s stick, but Bartalis’ backhanded effort lacked the power to beat the French goalie on the rebound. But that was the last hope for the Hungarians as France added a fifth moments later. Da Costa’s rush split the defence, Texier’s pass picked out captain Damien Fleury at the back door and his finish took the game beyond the battling Hungarians.

"The team reacted well," Bozon concluded. "We worked hard all game and it's a big first win because we know how the first game is important in this tournament."