With its first win of the tournament, Kazakhstan achieved an historic success. How so? Only once before has the Central Asian republic gotten to play in three consecutive top-level Worlds (2004-06). Even though this result wasn't as impressive as last year's 10th-place finish, the Kazakhs are shedding their reputation as an up-and-down "elevator team."
"We were hoping this wasn't going to be the game we needed," said Kazakhstan's Jesse Blacker. "We were hoping to sneak out some wins in other games but we had some key injuries this year and players missing, so for us to get a chance to play in this again next year is good stuff for us."
Alikhan Asetov scored the eventual winner in the second period.
It was a full team effort for the victors. Defenceman Valeri Orekhov stepped up with a goal and an assist to bring his team-leading points total to seven points. Assistant captain Curtis Valk, captain Roman Starchenko, and Nikita Mikhailis (the son of coach Yuri Mikhailis) also scored for Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs capitalized twice on the power play.
Brandon McNally and Diego Kostner replied for Italy. The Italians came 16th and last in 2021, but there was no relegation then due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"I thought this was probably our worst performance of the tournament, but we mustered up as much as we could and tried to battle and worked as hard as we could," said Italy's Alex Petan. "We had a couple of breakdowns and that cost us some goals.
The starting goalies were among the tournament's busiest. Kazakhstan's Andrei Shutov came in having faced 191 shots, while Italy's Andreas Bernard had faced 162 shots. However, the valiant Bernard would get yanked in favour of Justin Fazio in the third period here after allowing five goals.
Despite going pointless, Kazakhstan had suffered no fewer than four one-goal losses, and even gave the defending champions some trouble in a 6-3 loss to Canada.
The Kazakhs had some notable names sidelined due to injury. These included towering veteran defenceman Viktor Svedberg, who missed his third game, and forward Kirill Savitski, who had two goals in six games before unfortunately blocking a shot with his face in the 5-4 loss to Germany.
The teams got off to a quick if defensively cautious start. But when Simon Kostner took the game’s first penalty for hooking mid-period, Kazakhstan took full advantage with the man advantage.
With a classic willingness to go to the dirty areas, Valk came off the goal line and tried to stuff the puck past Bernard’s left pad. The goalie made the initial stop but Valk got the puck up on his second try for a 1-0 lead.
Coach Gregory Ireland's men answered right back with the power play after Simon Kostner, heading for the Kazakh blue line, was toppled with a high hit by defenceman Adil Beketayev. The play was reviewed by the officials, and a minor rather than major penalty was assessed. At 14:47, McNally evened the score with a centre point wrister that flew past Shutov through traffic.
Undaunted, Kazakhstan restored its lead on Orekhov’s 2-1 goal at 15:59. He stepped in off the left point and zapped a wrister from the faceoff circle over Bernard’s glove. It was the 22-year-old blueliner’s third goal at these Worlds.
Offensively, this was a surprising breakout tournament for Orekhov. He had just six points (1+5=6) in 41 KHL games this season with Barys Nur-Sultan, and was blanked in his three games in his Worlds debut last year.
In the second period, Kazakhstan kept coming. On the 3-1 marker, Yegor Petukhov attempted a centering pass that tipped off Alex Trivellato's stick, but he regained the disc and shoveled it back in the crease behind Bernard from behind the goal line. Asetov was there in the blue paint to bang it in.
Italy wasn't cowed. Just 57 seconds later, Diego Kostner cut the deficit to 3-2 with a similar display of persistence, following up on his initial shot and tucking the puck in from below the goal line, despite Shutov's outstretched stick.
Blacker gave the Italians credit: "They limited our chances and played a tough, tight game. It wasn't easy."
With just over a minute left in the middle frame, Kazakh forward Mikhail Rakhmanov was shaken up inside the Italian blue line on a questionable hit by defenceman Dylan di Perna. Rakhmanov lay prone on the ice before getting helped off. Once again, the officials reviewed the play, and this time they assessed di Perna a five-minute kneeing major and game misconduct.
At 3:29, shortly before the extended Kazakh power play was set to expire, Starchenko gave his team some breathing room with a 4-2 lead. The veteran Kazakhstan captain circled into the right faceoff circle and zapped a short-side shot past Bernard's glove for his second goal of these Worlds.
"We got a lot of shots and capitalized on our chances, which I think was the key," Blacker said. "It was a hard-fought game."
Nikita Mikhailis put the nail in Italy's coffin at 6:02 with the 5-2 marker, hustling to the net and finishing off an odd-man break. That ended Bernard's time between the pipes.
With nothing to lose, the Italians pulled Fazio for an extra attacker with 2:22 left. They applied pressure, but there was no miracle comeback in store.
The Italians disappointingly failed to gain revenge for the 11-3 thrashing Kazakhstan gave them at last year’s tournament in Riga. The two previous Worlds meetings between these nations were Italian wins, 3-2 in Riga in 2006 and 2-1 in Mannheim in 2010. In the lone Olympic meeting, Kazakhstan beat Italy 5-3 on 7 February 1998 in Nagano.
Petan assessed Italy's 2022 performance in the big picture: "Overall, I think we did a really good job. We battled against Olympic medallists, and we were in the game the whole time. If we bury a couple of more chances, maybe we get three points our way. Throughout the tournament, I think we did a lot of good things, building as a federation. Obviously, we have to re-set our goal and work at coming back up."