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Islanders duo hopes to help Austria pull off an upset

by Brian Compton

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- New York Islanders forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner know the task of helping Austria bring home a medal from the 2014 Sochi Olympics will be as close to impossible as it gets. But that doesn't mean they're not prepared to give it their best shot.

"It's exciting," Vanek said Thursday before the Islanders hosted the Calgary Flames at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. "Anytime you can play and represent your country, especially at this level, it'll be fun. Obviously, we're a big underdog, but that's OK. Hopefully we can surprise a few people."

This will be Austria's first appearance in the Olympics since 2002. They will compete in Group B with Norway, along with projected powerhouses Canada and Finland. Austria will face Finland next Thursday.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," Grabner said. "It's getting close now. Our team's already there and they said it looks good and it's a lot of fun so far. But at the same time, we have two more games, two important ones here and points that we need. So I'm trying to stay in the moment and get these wins for us."

Vanek and Grabner are two of the three Austrians playing in the NHL this season; rookie forward Michael Raffl, who has six goals and 11 assists in 44 games for the Philadelphia Flyers, will join the Islanders forwards in Sochi. The rest of the Olympic team is already in Sochi, making its final preparations for the tournament. The two Islanders forwards are hopeful more Austrians will play in the NHL in the future.

"Obviously, ski jumping is huge," said Vanek, whose father, Zdenek, played professional hockey in Europe. "[But] I think the game of hockey has grown. I think people are excited to have a team in [the Olympics] as well.

"I think every kid that played hockey followed the NHL. I think outside of that, it wasn't that big. Back there, there wasn't an internet, so you couldn't really follow it as closely as you can now. I think every Sunday there was an hour show that kind of recapped the whole week of the NHL. I think that was always a must-see as a kid."

"I lived next to an arena, so my mom signed me up and a lot of my friends were playing. That's how I got into it," Grabner said. "But hockey's been getting bigger [in Austria]. People are enjoying it. Hopefully we can get a few more Austrians over here [in the NHL]."

Grabner and Vanek make up two of three Islanders heading to Sochi; Islanders captain John Tavares will represent Canada. Though Islanders coach Jack Capuano is focused on trying to get his team closer to a Stanley Cup Playoff spot, he's happy three of his players will get to enjoy what is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

"For those guys, it's gonna be exciting," Capuano said. "When these six periods are over, they'll go and experience that. I'm pleased and excited that we have a few guys that are going to represent their countries. I think both those guys will enjoy their time together."

And considering it took 12 years for Austria to get back into the Olympic tournament, Grabner and Vanek realize this could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for each of them.

"I think the last time was '02, so who knows how many more chances we're going to get for Austria to play there," Grabner said. "We've just got to go there, do your best and represent our country the best we can and enjoy the experience.

"We don't have anything to lose, really. At the same time, you've got to do your best. I think no matter who you play or where you play, losing is losing and you don't want to lose. That's in your nature. You've got to do your best and see what happens at the end of the day."

Vanek knows wins won't be easy to come by. Indeed, it will likely take a remarkable performance from one Austria's three goaltenders -- Bernhard Starkbaum, Rene Swette and Fabian Weinhandl -- in order to beat the likes of Canada and Finland.

"When you go to the World Championships, those games are tough for us," Vanek said. "Now you've got the best of the best. It's tough. I don't want to put any pressure on our goaltending, but it comes down to goaltending. I think anytime you can have a goalie that's hot and can give you 50, 55 saves, maybe you can get a few odd-man rushes and capitalize on them.

"That's why you play the game. It's a one-game shot. Obviously, we know the Finland, Canada games are gonna be tough. You just never know."


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