Italy’s head coach Greg Ireland spoke of the need for his team to show pride against the French following that chastening 0-6 reverse against the host. And, despite an alarming start when Charles Bertrand and Alexandre Texier jumped into a two-on-one rush on their first shift, he was rewarded by a battling display from his team.
Hard work in centre ice and in the defensive zone limited a powerful French offence to just nine shots at Andreas Bernard in a scoreless opening stanza. True, there was little action at the other end, where Henri-Corentin Buysse enjoyed a quiet start to his first competitive international outing since the 2019 Worlds. But after falling out of contention in the opening minutes of the first game, Italy could take much encouragement from the first 20 minutes.
"I liked our start, I really liked our energy," said Italy's head coach Ireland. "I thought the guys came in with a focus. We played well, we were up and down the ice, established the forecheck really well and we were able to force some turnovers."
France made the breakthrough early in the second period with Sacha Treille picking up his second goal of the tournament. The powerfully-built Grenoble forward has been something of an immovable object in front of the opposition net in this tournament, and once again his physical presence paid dividends. Treille held off the attentions of Peter Spornberger to apply the redirect to Hugo Gallet’s one-timer and give France the lead.
"That's one of my roles," the big man smiled. "They told me to put my big body in front of the net and so far it's working pretty well. We had a little bit of luck in there, but we'll take it."
However, Italy remained dogged, killing a penalty shortly after the goal and continuing to frustrate the French. Despite struggling to generate much offence, there was a gilt-edged opportunity to tie the scores when Stefano Giliati’s break split open the French defence. Giliati’s pass found Tommaso Traversa at the back door but the Pustertal forward was stretching to reach the puck and he could only flick it high and wide of Buysse’s net.
Soon after, another Italian penalty saw the French power play back to the form we saw against Hungary 24 hours earlier. Yesterday, Alexandre Texier was red hot, scoring twice on the PP. Today, he was quarterbacking the play once again, patiently probing for the shooting chance before releasing an effort that clipped Treille’s stick and bounced down into the net. Florian Chakichvili collected an assist, his fourth of the tournament and all of them on the power play.
That put the French in control going into the third period, but Italy produced more offence in that final frame. There were presentable chances for Angelo Miceli, Peter Hochkofler and, late in the game, Enrico Miglioranzi as the Azzurri looked to get their first goal of the competition. However, Buysse was keen to secure his shut-out and the 33-year-old dealt with everything the opposition could throw at him. With more than two minutes left, Ireland withdrew goalie Bernard in favour of a sixth skater. The additional pressure led to a French penalty with 94 seconds to play, but the final surge fell short of the goal Italy so badly wanted when Buysse's glove robbed Alex Petan when the chance arrived.
"We are happier than yesterday about our first and third periods," said Italian forward Traversa. "We still believed before this game that we could make the Olympics, but now I guess that dream is over. We gave it all and we have one more game in this tournament to try to get a win."
And head coach Ireland was also encouraged by the finish. "Most importantly, I really liked the third period," he said. "We had some good chances around the net but unfortunately we didn't seem to have any of that puck luck tonight.
"It's a matter of pride for us, we're disappointed with the loss but we came with a great start and we battled through the game."
For the French, though, holding a lead without alarms was also a big deal, with memories of that World Championship slump against Great Britain in Kosice still raw. "We were really smart in the third period, even if we didn't get a lot of offence," said head coach Philippe Bozon. "We were smart in the way we were playing, keeping that lead, which is something that cost us a couple of years ago. This time we were way better."
Buysse secured a French shut-out and sends Bozon's team into a Sunday night showdown against host nation Latvia. Victory over the tournament’s top seed would send the French to the Games for the first time since 2002.