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Germany out to prove it's an elite international team

Wednesday, 05.04.2011 / 10:58 AM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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Germany out to prove it's an elite international team
After last year's run to fourth place, Germany has started the 2011 World Championship in strong fashion, winning its preliminary-round group.
Determined to prove their fourth-place showing on home ice at last year's IIHF World Championship was no fluke, Germany has been the talk of the 2011 Worlds in Slovakia.

The team enters the medal round qualification portion of the tournament sporting an unbeaten record after three games. Coached by former NHL defenseman Uwe Krupp, Germany claimed first place in its preliminary-round pool after scoring regulation upsets of Russia and Slovakia and a shootout win against Slovenia.

Last year, with the tournament being held in Cologne, Mannheim and Gelsenkirchen, Germany staged a Cinderella run to the bronze-medal game. Along the way to the medal round, Germany upended Team USA (2-1) and Slovakia (2-1) and then made a single tally by Philip Gogulla stand up in a 1-0 win against Switzerland in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Germany threw a scare into Russia before losing 2-1. They also hung tough against Sweden in the bronze-medal game, losing 3-1.
 
Germany's fourth-place finish last year was its highest since the modern 16-team format was adopted. Meanwhile, goaltender Dennis Endras of the DEL's Augsburg Panthers became the first German player ever to win tournament MVP honors. Suitably impressed, the Minnesota Wild signed the 25-year-old to a contract last summer.

This year, Germany believes that if it plays to its maximum capability, it can defeat any team in the tournament on a given day. Endras is back in net, and back to his old tricks, shutting out Russia on 31 shots in Germany's tournament opening 2-0 victory.

Endras, however, is not the only reason Germany is off its first 3-0 start at the Worlds in 81 years. The win against Russia wasn't a typical international hockey upset where the underdog team scratches out a lucky goal or two but generally is hesitant to attack or to risk taking penalties. Germany mustered 27 shots of their own against Evgeni Nabokov, getting an early second-period goal by Thomas Greilinger and a breakaway goal by Patrick Reimer in the latter stages of the third period. Germany also played a physical game, and killed three penalties flawlessly.

"I can't say we expected a shutout against Russia," Krupp said. "But I can say that we gained a lot of confidence from last year. This team is very close-knit and the players are not in awe of any team that they will face. We're not the most talented team, of course, but we have a group of players who are committed to patience and hard work."

Germany followed the win against Russia two days later by turning back host Slovakia. After a scoreless first period that saw Reimer denied on a penalty shot, goals by Marcel Mueller, John Tripp and defenseman Frank Hordler built a commanding lead for Germany. Felix Schutz added an insurance goal that proved to be vital as Slovakia goals by Ladislav Nagy, Josef Stumpel and Pavol Demitra sliced Germany's lead to 4-3 with 7:17 left in the third period. However, goalie Dimitri Patzold (35 saves) slammed the door the rest of the way.

"We gained a lot of confidence from last year. This team is very close knit and the players are not in awe of any team that they will face. We're not the most talented team, of course, but we have a group of players who are committed to patience and hard work." -- Uwe Krupp

Entering their third game, against Slovenia, Germany knew its spot in the qualification round was safe. Slovenia, however, needed something positive to build from before they headed to the relegation round. Germany controlled most of the play, outshooting their opponents by a 61-26 margin (including a 39-13 disparity through the first two periods), but found themselves trailing 2-0 midway through regulation. A power-play goal by Michael Wolf late in the second period cut the deficit to one goal, and then Schutz tied it early in the third. After a scoreless overtime, the teams engaged in a marathon shootout that saw Endras turn aside seven of eight attempts before Hordler, the 16th shooter, ended the game by beating Robert Kristan.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Germany's play so far is that the team has been winning without its NHL players. Christian Ehrhoff (Canucks), Dennis Seidenberg (Bruins), Marcel Goc (Predators) and Marco Sturm (Capitals) all remain involved in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while Jochen Hecht has had injury problems this spring. Mueller is the lone member of Team Germany to appear in an NHL game in 2010-11. But what the team lacks in frontline talent, it makes up for in grit and tenacity. For example, the team has killed off 12 of 13 penalties so far in the tournament.

There also is plenty of youthful enthusiasm on the squad. The roster has only two players over the age of 30 (Tripp and Daniel Kreutzer), but 10 who are age 25 or younger. The majority of the roster came up through the domestic junior development programs in Germany, and most have played together before on the junior or senior national teams, as well as the DEL.

"There's a lot of familiarity that comes from playing together for a while," Gogulla said. "We know the system and what's expected of us. So that helps with communicating on the ice."

In many ways, Germany’s game can be likened to the model that has brought numerous medals to Finland in recent years. Although Germany does not have as much depth or front-line talent as Finland, the whole often is greater than the sum of the parts for both national teams. Neither side gives an inch even when playing against favored opponents.

Germany's style of play is influenced heavily by North American hockey. That's because the DEL traditionally has made extensive use of imported talent on the ice and behind the bench. A large percentage of the foreign players have NHL (or at least AHL) experience. While the DEL is not the fastest-paced or most skilled European league, it is one of the most physical. As a result, young German players quickly learn to acclimate themselves to hitting and getting hit.

As the World Championship progresses through the qualification and medal rounds, Germany will continue to be a heavy underdog whenever it plays one of the elite hockey countries. But the thought of Germany skating away with a medal -- now or in the future -- is not nearly as preposterous as it would have seemed in the recent past.
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