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Italy, Kazakhstan bounce back to top level

by Bill Meltzer /
It's been said that the biggest leap in international hockey is the one from the Division I level to the elites. At the top level, of course, the competition is loaded with current and former NHL talents, as well as standouts from the top European professional leagues.

Division I is comprised largely of players from secondary pro and semi-pro circuits around Europe or the Asia League of Ice Hockey, with only the occasional NHLer hailing from one of the participating countries.

Even within the Division I level, there is a chasm between the nations that are serious contenders to earn a promotion and those simply hoping to avoid relegation to Division II. In most Division I World Championship tournaments, there are usually only two teams with a realistic shot at gaining a berth at the elite level the next year.

Such was the case again this year at the recently completed IIHF Division I World Championship tournaments in Vilnius, Lithuania (Group A) and Torun, Poland (Group B). When the final buzzer sounded on the competitions, Kazakhstan prevailed over Slovenia, 2-1, to win Group A and Italy nipped Ukraine, 2-0, to earn the elite level promotion from Group B. Both countries will compete at the 2010 World Championships in Germany.

The Italians and Kazakhs are no strangers to playing at the top international level. Ranked 14th in the world, Team Italy returns to the elites after a one-year absence. Meanwhile, 19th-ranked Kazakhstan will be back for the first time since 2006.

Happy returns for Kazakhstan

Of the two, the Kazakhs' promotion was the more unexpected. In recent years, Slovenia has bounced back and forth between the elites and Division I. A year ago, the Kazahks were a distant runner-up to the host Austrians at the 2009 Division I Worlds in Innsbruck. The previous year, Kazakhstan finished a disappointing third.

This time around, with the Slovenians competing without the services of their lone NHL star, Anze Kopitar, the playing field was leveled for the Kazakhs. Nine players came from the Barys Astana club team with two other players coming from Russian teams in the Kontinental Hockey League. Barys forward Vadim Krasnoslobotsev led the way offensively with nine points. Coach Andrei Shayanov was hired after the Kazakhs failed to qualify for the 2010 Olympics.

In addition to Kazakhstan, Slovenia and the host Lithuanians, the 2010 Group A tournament included Japan (the eventual bronze medalist), Croatia and Australia. Of the three, only the Japanese had even an outside shot at upsetting either the Kazakhs or Slovenians.

Kazakhstan opened the tourney with a relatively easy 5-1 win against Lithuania. They followed it up with a 6-1 conquest of Croatia, a 3-1 victory against Japan and the tournament's most lopsided rout -- a 13-2 thrashing of Australia. Likewise, the Slovenes made it to the final game undefeated, with a hard-fought 2-1 win against Japan setting the stage for the finale against the Kazahks.

The Kazakhs gained an early territorial advantage that they wouldn't relinquish. At 8:24 of the first period, Ilya Solarev drew first blood for Kazakhstan. Left alone on the right wing, he had plenty of skating room to corral a pass, move in on goaltender Andrej Hocevar and find an opening. Midway through regulation, Solarev struck again to make it a 2-0 game.

At the other end of the ice, goalkeeper Alexei Kuznetsov capped off an impressive tournament by slamming the door on the Slovenians. The Kazakhstan-born Barys goalkeeper is a graduate of the famous Avangard Omsk development program in Russia.
With less than four minutes remaining in regulation, Slovenia's Mitja Sivic finally solved Kuznetsov. But it would be the only puck Slovenia got past him.

Despite his short preparation time with the national team, coach Shayanov earned kudos for the job he did. While he has not yet officially been retained as the bench boss for the Kazakh national team, it's almost a shoo-in that he'll be offered the chance to coach the team next year in Germany.

"It was a very good game with two equal teams, so we are very glad that we won this championship. We felt very welcome in Vilnius, everybody was nice to as and the fans were good here," Shayanov said at the gold medal postgame press conference.

Italians get revenge on Ukrainians

Over in Torun, Team Italy entered the Group B tournament knowing that it would likely face Ukraine for the right to play in Germany next year. The Italians, directed by Canadian-born head coach and former defenseman Rick Cornacchia, were eager for revenge. Earlier this year, Ukraine prevailed against Italy, 3-2, in a qualification game for the 2010 Olympics.

In addition to Italy, Ukraine and Poland, the tournament featured Great Britain, the Netherlands and Romania. The Italians showed they meant business from the start, putting an 11-0 pasting on the Romanians in the opening game. The rout was followed by a 5-2 conquest of the Brits, a 4-0 shutout win over the Dutch and a 4-2 victory against the host nation led by two goals from Roland Ramoser. That set up the anticipated showdown with the undefeated Ukrainians.

Ukraine controlled the play for much of the game. A big part of the problem lay in the Italians' inability to stay out of the penalty box. Ukraine had numerous power play opportunities throughout the contest, including several lengthy 5-on-3 opportunities. But the Italian penalty killers and goaltender Thomas Tragust saved the day, holding Ukraine off the board.

Finally, at 14:01 of the second period, Italy scored to take a 1-0 lead. Defenseman Michele Strazzabosco sent a point shot toward goaltender Kostiantyn Simchuk. Camped in front of the net, hulking Bolzano Foxes forward Ramoser deflected the puck out of mid-air, sending it skittering between Simchuk's legs.

Tragust made the lead stand up. With time running out, Ukraine received a final power play with 1:44 remaining in the game. The Ukrainians pulled their goaltender for an extra attacker, but it was the Italians who scored into an empty net, to seal a 2-0 win and the gold medal. In total, Tragust turned away all 39 shots he faced. The Italians mustered only 16 of their own.

The Italian bench erupted when the final buzzer sounded, as the players piled on top of one another. The Italians sang their national anthem with gusto and left the ice to wild cheers from a small but vocal contingent of traveling fans.
"I think the hockey gods and Thomas Tragust were with us today," Cornacchia said afterward. "The players hung tough and showed character. They believed in the system and executed it."

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