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After Olympic disappointment Germans regroup

by Bill Meltzer
Heading into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Team Germany's ultimate goal was to find a way to pull off an upset or two and reach the medal round. A more realistic goal was to come out on top in a must-win pool game against Belarus and draw a somewhat easier opponent in medal-round qualification play. At bare minimum, the Germans expected to finish in the top 10 of the tournament, ahead of Norway and Latvia.

They failed on every count. After playing solidly in an opening-game 2-0 loss to Sweden, Germany's play tailed off with each successive game. Eventual bronze medalist Finland had little trouble blanking Germany, 2-0, and in the team's most disappointing performance of the tourney, Belarus skated off with a 5-3 win.

That meant Germany had to play an angry Team Canada, fresh off an unsatisfying shootout win against Switzerland and a loss to Team USA. Canada punished Germany, 8-2, which resulted in the team finishing behind Norway in the tournament. Even last-place Latvia was able to leave Vancouver with its head held high after pushing the Czech Republic to overtime in the medal round qualification game.

Said former NHL defenseman Sven Butenschön, "When we lost to Belarus, that was a tough pill to swallow. We needed to win that game to give us a chance to avoid a powerhouse. It was so exciting the first few days, and really optimistic. We played some decent periods of hockey, but we just couldn't put 60 minutes together."

Germany came into the Olympics knowing it would be out-shot and out-chanced, but it hoped to get strong goaltending from Thomas Greiss and backup Dimitri Pätzold, receive opportunistic offense, get strong top-end blueline play led by Christian Ehrhoff and Dennis Seidenberg and stay out of the penalty box as much as possible. Ehrhoff and Seidenberg held up their end of the bargain, but little else went right.

Throughout the tournament, Germany played an ultra-cautious game. They did not send any forecheckers into the offensive zone, instead clogging the neutral zone with all five skaters, hoping to bottle up more skilled opponents before they could pick up speed and control the puck off the rush. The strategy worked well against Sweden but failed thereafter. And the hoped-for timely offense never came to fruition.

The reasons for Germany's poor Olympic showing are not hard to find. Germany finished last in the tournament in scoring, generating a total of five goals in four games, led by two from Marcel Goc. And they were last in goaltending save percentage. They were the fourth-most penalized team and had a tournament-worst penalty killing percentage of 58.8 percent. Any way you slice it, that's a bad combination for a team that was capable of staging a similar tournament performance to the one turned in by Switzerland.

"In this type of short tournament, you have to build from each game and you can't let up," Germany coach Uwe Krupp told "We worked hard but we didn't take advantage when he had some opportunities. Obviously, you can't win when you get shut out, and we need to sustain our intensity for the entire game."

With Germany hosting the 2010 IIHF World Championships this spring, the team needs to go back to the drawing board to improve on last year's 15th-place finish at the Worlds. In fact, if the Germans had not earned an automatic berth in the tourney as the host, would have been relegated to Division I.

Germany's Olympic roster selection raised some eyebrows in December, when it initially left off NHLers Jochen Hecht and Christoph Schubert, and former NHL player (and longtime German national team and Eisbären Berlin fixture) Stefan Ustorf. Krupp reportedly was unhappy with Hecht's play at the 2009 World Championships. In addition, Krupp faced some tough decisions on how many players to take from the squad that won a berth in Vancouver via a qualification tournament. None of the 10 German national team-eligible players in the NHL or AHL were available for the qualification tourney.

"It's a bit of a tightrope act," Krupp told the New York Times in December. "We can't simply take all our NHL players just because they're NHL players. What about the guys who were here all through the qualifying process and got us into the Olympics? Do I tell them to just step aside?"

Ultimately, Hecht went to Vancouver, while Ustorf, 36, was not able to compete in his fifth Olympics. As a result, Sven Felski had the most seniority on the German team. Including the matches in Vancouver, the 35-year-old Felski has played 144 national-team games, two Olympics and nine World Championships. Schubert also was left off the final Olympic roster.

As it prepares to host the World Championships, Germany faces the challenge of retooling some of its roster and adjusting some of its strategies. As the No. 12 team in the IIHF world ranking, but one with realistic ambitions of being a top-10 team, the hope is Vancouver will serve as a learning experience from which the Germans can build in the short-term and longer-range future.

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