Survival showdown
by Andy Potts|22 MAY 2023
Austria's players celebrate last year's vital victory over Great Britain to keep their team in the top division of the World Championship. Can they repeat that achievement against Hungary this year?
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andre Ringuette
Two teams. Six games each. More than 720 minutes of hockey comes down to a final survival showdown. For Austria and Hungary, the 2023 World Championship hinges on Monday’s head-to-head meeting.

The stakes could not be higher. Hungary has two points, Austria one. Victory for either team, by any margin, will mean a trip to Czechia for the 2024 Worlds. Defeat sends the loser to relegation and a battle in Division IA to return to the elite.

For Austria, this is familiar territory. Twelve months ago, Roger Bader’s team faced a similar winner-takes-all showdown here in Tampere against Great Britain. It went to the third period, but the Austrians came from behind and took a 5-3 verdict to remain at the top.
“That helps a lot,” said Austrian forward Marco Rossi. “This year we have some guys who were on that team and they know exactly what to do. That most important thing is to stay patient. It takes 60 minutes, you can’t win or lose a game in the first period. We just have to play the right way, and don’t overthink it.”

Team captain Manuel Ganahl is also optimistic that the experience of 2022 will help. However, he admits that the game against GB could have ended very differently.

“Last year we played a really good tournament, but that last game was probably the worst we played,” he said. “We got lucky and I think everyone knows that.

“I hope we’ve learned. We prepared way differently this even before the tournament started. We focussed on that [Hungary] game and the possibility that it could be the deciding game. I think we’re going to be well prepared.”

Hungary lacks that kind of recent experience. The last World Championship campaign was in 2016, and you have to go back to the 1930s to find a Hungarian team that stayed at the top for any length of time.

Special teams might prove crucial. So far Hungary has the worst power play, with no goals to date, and also the worst PK, killing just 52.63% and allowing nine power play goals. Austria has a creditable 33.3% conversion rate on the PP (albeit from just nine opportunities) and a 75% success rate on the PK.

In Sunday’s defeat against Germany, the Magyars had a chance of two full minutes at 5-on-3. Austrian unhappiness was compounded by the fact that Istvan Sofron got the puck in the net, but it was whistled back for a foul that saw Istvan Bartalis go to the box. The Germans escaped unscathed, a reprieve that can’t be extended to an Austrian team that has a creditable .

“It's not the first time at this tournament that we missed [scoring on] a 5-on-3 so maybe that's a weak point,” said Hungary’s alternate captain Tamas Poszgai. “I hope if we have a 5-on-3 against Austria we score! That's one of the parts of the game where we have to be better.”

Hungary’s captain, Gergo Nagy, was concerned about many aspects of his team’s performance against Germany.

“We just can’t play like that,” he said. “We’ve got a little more than 24 hours to throw that in the garbage and get ready for our biggest game.

“We proved already at this tournament that we can beat teams. We don’t have to do anything crazy. We just need to come out with the attitude, come out with some fire, with some jam, and then we’re going to be happy.”

Poszgai also promises total commitment. “We have had lots of battles in the past and we always have guys who know each other from junior leagues and the Hungarian leagues too,” he said. “It’s going to be a very, very, very exciting game.

“The winner stays up. There’s no question everyone will battle for their lives.”