Survival showdown
by Andy Potts|23 MAY 2022
Kazakhstan's Jesse Blacker and Italy's Raphael Andergassen in action as the teams clashed in Riga at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is not just about the race for medals. At the other end of the table, each year sees several countries fighting to preserve their place in the tournament. On Monday, two head-to-head clashes between the strugglers will see wild celebrations for those who make the cut – and anguish for the two teams that drop to Division IA for 2023.

Winner takes all as Italy faces Kazakhstan

In Group A, the picture is straightforward. Italy faces Kazakhstan on Monday with the winner securing its place in the top division for the 2023 tournament.

Both teams have faced some tough times in this tournament. For Kazakhstan, a 1-9 reverse in the opening game against Denmark got things off to the worst possible start. Italy, meanwhile, has suffered some heavy losses of its own, including a 4-9 drubbing against Germany. Both teams, though, have had their moments. Italy grabbed a point in an overtime loss against France and was seconds away from getting the win in regulation; Kazakhstan has been involved in some close battles, dropping a one-goal verdict against unbeaten Switzerland and twice leading against Canada.

One boost for Kazakhstan is the return to fitness of defenceman Darren Dietz. The naturalized Canadian left Barys Nur-Sultan during the past season and missed the start of the Worlds as he overcame an injury.

“Of course we missed a player of his level,” said head coach Yuri Mikhailis. “Our penalty kill, and especially our power play, showed that. His return immediately inspired our guys, shots starting flying in, we made good passes. It’s a huge plus for us.”

Penalties are Kazakhstan’s problem – Curtis Valk branded them “our Kryptonite” after the loss to Slovakia. The Kazakhs have been shorthanded 23 times, a tournament low matched only by Britain. They’ve allowed 11 goals in that time, an outright low point for this World Championship and run an unconvincing 52.17% success on the penalty kill.

That’s why Nikita Mikhailis said: “We need to keep a grip on our emotions, we are giving away too many unnecessary penalties.

“Everybody understands we have a tough game ahead, we all know this is the last game of our tournament so we are going to give it everything.” 

Head coach Yuri added: “It all depends on us, not on the Italians.”

Italy, meanwhile, has been here before. In 2019 the team endured a wretched campaign until the final day when, after scoring just once in six games, the Italians took Austria to a 4-4 tie in regulation and won a shootout to stay in the top division.

This time there is a slight advantage in that an overtime loss to France gives the Italians a single point so far. However, that wouldn’t save them if Kazakhstan gets any kind of a victory on Monday. Meanwhile, the goal difference for both teams is broadly similar – Italy is 10-27, Kazakhstan 14-29 – suggesting there could be little to choose between them.

“We know what’s at stake,” said forward Alex Petan. “We have a goal in mind that’s clear to everyone and that’s to stay in the top division. I think we deserve to be here. 

“We have to focus, let the previous games slide out of our minds and get ready to focus on the next game.”

Italian head coach Greg Ireland is also happy with his team’s progress over the past 10 days. 

“We are ready to play,” he said. “We are what we are, and we’re not going to tear up the game plan against Kazakhstan.

“We’ve come through six games and we’ve grown a lot. It’s going to be important to do the same things like we always do, to stick to our system, to give 100% and to score goals.”

Austria has the advantage in Group B battle

Group B also comes down to a head-to-head clash, but the advantage is very much with the Austrians when they face Great Britain on Monday evening. Austria has four points after a historic shootout win over Czechia, plus points after taking USA and Latvia beyond the 60-minute mark. The Brits managed a shootout loss against Norway, trailing their rival by three points. 

For a team invited to the World Championship as an 11th-hour replacement for Belarus, Austria has been a refreshing presence in Group B. Very much an outsider in each game, Roger Bader’s team has given most teams a tough time in Tampere. Results, as expected, have not been easy to come by but the Austrians have never been overwhelmed in their six games to date.

Unlike the other teams in relegation danger, Austria’s goal difference is more encouraging at 11-19. Britain, by contrast, has scored just seven times, fewer than anyone else in Finland, and allowed 28 at the other end, with only Kazakhstan having a leakier defence. There’s more good news when it comes to special teams. Austria’s PK is the third best in the tournament, with an 86.36% success rate. Considering GB has just one power-play goal in Tampere to date, that could be another key indicator in Bader’s favour.

Stats like that explain why Austria’s players have often found themselves lamenting the fact that they haven’t collected the points those performances have deserved.

After losing in a shootout to Latvia, assistant captain Manuel Ganahl admitted his frustrations. “We played another really good game,” he said. “We need to take the positive things out of it but right after the game it feels really bad because I think we deserved a second point.”

As for the overall situation, he added: “Of course it’s really good that we have all the cards in our hands. In tournaments now it’s all about how we manage that loss, how we go on from here and get the right conclusions out of that game and prepare ourselves now, rest well especially and get ready for the last games.”
The last time Austria and Great Britain met in World Championship play was in the Division IA in 2012 with pictured Colin Shields and Matthias Trattnig. Austria won 7-3.
photo: Samo Vidic
Britain, meanwhile, has always expected to be in this situation – and has experience of pulling off a vital win in similar circumstances in 2019 against France. And after going three games without a goal, the fight shown in a 3-4 loss to Latvia on Sunday gives encouragement to the team.

“We were playing three of the top five in the world, so it was always going to be tough to get goals in those games,” said defenceman Josh Batch. “Against Latvia we did that and there’s something we can build on for Austria.

“We’re going to have to win a game in regulation, but [Head coach] Pete Russell’s focussed on this last game since day one of our first camp. It comes down to the one game we’ve been focussed on to avoid relegation.”

It’s a message that’s been consistent throughout GB’s time in Tampere. After a painful 0-6 loss to Sweden, forward Scott Conway said: “This isn’t a game that defines our tournament. We’re looking forward to that last game against Austria but we gotta make some changes throughout the tournament and get better as it goes on. If we play like we did in that first period, it’s not going to go well for us. We’ll keep working on what we can, learn our lessons and we’ll grow as a team.”

While Austria’s form through the group stage makes it a clear favourite for Monday’s match-up, the team also has to wrestle with the demons of 2019. That year, in Bratislava, Austria faced an Italian team in similar circumstances in a final game survival battle. The Italians had lost six straight games with a wretched goal difference of 1-44, but snatched a dramatic shootout win after a pulsating 4-4 tie to send Austria back to Division IA.

By contrast, GB has fond memories of its dramatic overtime victory over France on the same day when Ben Davies got the goal that completed a fightback from 0-3 and kept the Brits at the top table. This time, though, overtime won’t be enough to save Pete Russell and his team.