French veteran Sacha Treille scored the tying goal at 18:54 of the third period with goalie Henri Corentin Buysse pulled for a sixth attacker. It was a shocking turn of events for Italy, which had hoped to gain its first regulation win of the tournament.
"This is always what happens when we play these guys," said French captain Damien Fleury. "They play hard and tight and it's tough to score. It's great that we won. We wanted to win the overtime. We felt physically we were better, and we felt they lost some energy, so we wanted to keep pushing and score in the overtime."
This Group A showdown could prove key in the fight to avoid relegation. The French now have five points, while Italy settled for its first point in Helsinki. France sits 13th in the IIHF World Ranking to Italy's 16th.
Luca Frigo scored Italy's goal.
"How should we feel?" said Italy's Alex Trivellato. "We feel terrible. We led the game for 59 minutes, and all of a sudden they turn it around in 30 seconds. It's hard. We had chances, they had chances. It was a close game. That's how it is sometimes."
In net, it was a duel between well-matched starting goalies. Buysse, who entered with a save percentage of 92.5 through two games, made 20 saves for France. Andreas Bernard, who entered with a save percentage of 92.3 through two games, had 34 saves for Italy.
"It's nice to be in this position," said France's Louis Boudon. "You don't want to play games just to save your spot in the top division. Now we can play a little more freely. The quarter-final is still an option for us, so we're just going to try to win every game and do the best we can."
The teams got off to a vigorous if cautious start. Approaching the midway point of the first period, Italian defenceman Gregorio Gios took down Guillaume Leclerc behind Bernard’s net, but the French couldn’t muster any bona fide chances on their power play. Right after that expired, Italy fared no better when French forward Dylan Fabre went off for holding.
French defenceman Florian Chakiachvili was the victim of his own cleverness on the opening Italian goal, which came shorthanded at 14:42.
In the defensive zone, Chakiachvili allowed Frigo to skate up to him before feinting around the forechecker, and heading toward the blue line. But the Italian assistant captain from HC Bolzano didn’t give up on the play. With Pavel Datsyuk-like flair, he picked Chakiachvili’s pocket from behind and went one-on-one with Buysse, tucking a forehand past the goalie’s right skate for his first goal of the tournament.
France’s best opportunity came when Anthony Rech rang one off the iron from the right faceoff circle with under five minutes left in the first. Italy nearly added to its lead seconds before the buzzer, but Buysse foiled Alex Petan from the doorstep.
In the second period, France stayed snakebitten and the Italians clogged up the middle of the ice as much as possible as the midway mark approached. French fans attempted to motivated their side with chants of "Allez Les Bleus!" in the last five minutes of the frame.
A pinching Yohann Auvitu had a good chance for the equalizer when he cut to the middle with a backhand, and so did NHLer Alexandre Texier when he burst around Gios in the right faceoff circle for a shot. No dice.
"When you have a lot of chances and you don't score, the nerves get going and you get frustrated," Boudon admitted. "But we talked about it at the end of the second, and we turned it around and had a good third period."
An onrushing Frigo nearly gave Italy a two-goal lead on an exciting wraparound attempt near the seven-minute mark, but the puck trickled off his stick at the last second. A few minutes later, Chakiachvili exacted a little bit of revenge for his earlier gaffe when he caught a piece of Frigo at the French blue line and sent him tumbling.
Desperate for the tying goal, France pulled Buysse for the extra attacker and it paid off. Treille parked himself in front and deflected in Fleury's shot from the left faceoff circle.
"We wanted to put traffic in front of their net because they had five guys pretty tight," said Fleury. "So we wanted to get big Sacha in front and get it to him, which is what happened. He made a good play."
The intrigue thickens this weekend as Italy takes on Germany on Friday, while France faces Denmark on Saturday.
"We have to put more pressure on the other team and try to score more than one goal," Trivellato said of Italy.