Battling Brits break Austrian hearts
by Andy POTTS|21 MAY 2024
GB's Ben O'Connor #28 celebrates his opening goal with Nathanael Halbert #79
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andrea Cardin
Great Britain played the ugly sisters to Austria’s Cinderella, declaring that the 2024 IIHF World Championship’s pluckiest underdog would not go to the quarter-final ball. A 4-2 victory could not save the already relegated Brits but robbed Austria of its chance to finish fourth in Group A.

Power play goals from Ben O’Connor and Brett Perlini shattered Austria’s playoff dream as GB retrieved a 1-0 deficit to pick up its first points of the tournament. Then Evan Mosey – playing a forward due to Liam Kirk’s absence – stuffed a bouncing puck into the net midway through the third period to open up a 3-1 lead that broke Austrian hearts.

It was a tough loss for Austria to take. “We had it in our hands,” lamented Benjamin Baumgartner, who last-gasp goal over Finland drew the roadmap towards the top four. “We had to win this game and then hope for something from Switzerland. It’s tough right now. I don’t know when, or even if we’ll get this chance again.”

Austria came into its final group stage game with a shot at making the quarter-finals for the first time since 1994. A regulation win over already-relegated Great Britain, coupled with a favour from Alpine neighbour Switzerland in the evening game against Finland would push Roger Bader’s team into fourth place in Group A. That would set up a first knock-out game at the Worlds in 30 years.

Britain had nothing more than pride to play for. Pete Russell’s team subsided against Norway to slip out of the top division less than 24 hours earlier. On top of that blow, there was the tangible loss of key forward Liam Kirk who sat this one out due to the illness that affected him during the Norway game. 

After a low-key first period, Austria made the breakthrough early in the second. GB captain Robert Dowd took one for the team, fouling Dominik Zwerger to prevent him getting a dangerous shot on goal. But the power play came up trumps for Austria with Clemens Unterweger’s heavy slap shot proving too hot for Ben Bowns. Moments later Lukas Haudum dinged the post and Austria’s Cinderella story was proceeding according to the script.

Then came the plot twist. Paul Stapelfeldt’s trip came at the same time as a too many men call and GB had a full two minutes of five-on-three. It was an unexpected pathway back into the game, and the Brits took advantage. David Kickert was called into action, producing a huge triple save to deny Mosey, then Perlini, before finally getting his glove behind a Dowd shot on the goal line. Those heroics went unrewarded: the subsequent face-off went back to Ben O’Connor, who emulated Unterweger’s slap shot to tie the scores.

“It would have been easy to fold the tent and not show up today,” said O’Connor. “It showed credit to our group and our character that we wanted to come in and end it on a positive note.

“We’re not afraid when we’re down. We’ve shown in the past we’re resilient and keep fighting to the end. We wanted to end on a positive note. Getting demoted wasn’t the outcome we wanted but we can hold our heads high.”

Now Austria was wobbling. Dowd went close twice more and the pressure on Bowns’ net dissipated. It wasn’t until the closing stages that the play evened out, and a last-minute chance for Rossi almost restored the Austrian lead ahead of the intermission.

For Austrian captain Thomas Raffl, that double penalty was the turning point.

“I thought we started really good, we had everything under control,” he said. “We got up 1-0 but then we draw the double penalty. They exposed us on that one and maybe we wanted to get bit a little bit too hard lost a little bit of our structure. 

“GB has a good team too, doesn’t matter if they were relegated, they deserve to be here. we just have to look at the game, keep on improving and show up better next year.”

The third period began with another GB power play. Raffl took a cross-checking penalty 11 seconds into the frame and the Brits wore down the penalty kill to grab the go-ahead goal. With 15 seconds left on the penalty, Perlini got free in front to make it 2-1 and leave Austria needing two goals to stay in the tournament.

Britain was happy to keep moving forward and increased its lead when Sam Duggan’s shot rattled around in front of Kickert and Mosey showed good hands to steer it into the net. The goal was celebrated by British fans in Prague, and also Finnish fans relieved that a quarter-final spot seemed increasingly secure.

"I've got a few Finnish friends so it was nice to get it done for them," said GB goalie Bowns. "I don't drink myself, but maybe they'll send a few beers to the dressing room for the boys!"

Two years ago in a relegation showdown, Austria was down 1-3 in the third but rallied to win 5-3. Now, with a different prize on the line, something similar was required. Cole Shudra’s high-sticking penalty opened the door for another spectacular fightback, but the British penalty kill did its job.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and Austria went with six skaters on 55:25. Six seconds later, Kickert was back in his net after Dowd added an empty net tally to pile on the pain for Austria and give Britain an upbeat finale to a tough tournament. Mario Huber's late power play goal offered scant consolation, but there were highlights from the overall campaign.

“It was an amazing tournament, the best in my career,” concluded Raffl. “I had so much fun with this group, watching how we got tighter.

“And playing well against Finland, Canada, Switzerland, it was a lot of fun. We have to keep these in our memories and keep going from that.”