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Vanek gives Austria even bigger home-ice advantage

by Bill Meltzer

Team Austria celebrates a goal during its 8-0 victory in the opening game of the 2008 Division I World Championships in Innsbruck.
In recent years, Austria's Erste Bank Liga has made big gains in its stature among European hockey leagues. But at the international level, it's been the same story for Team Austria: too good for the Division I level, not quite good enough to hold a spot among the elite hockey nations.

At the top level, Austria has not won a medal in a major tournament since 1947, and has not topped 10th place since 1994.  Team Austria has shuffled several times between relegation to the IIHF Division I World Championships and promotion to the elite tourney.

In 2005, Austria finished last at the Worlds and was relegated to Division I. The next year, it easily won its bracket of the Division I Worlds to go back up. Last year, a 15th-place finish at the World Championships in Russia sent the Austrians packing again.

There was a consolation prize for this latest demotion: the opportunity to host a bracket of the 2009 Division I Worlds at Innsbruck's TWK Arena.

In a field that also includes Kazakhstan, Poland, the Netherlands, Great Britain and recently promoted South Korea, Team Austria enters the tournament as the favorite to win the gold and return to the top international level.

Vanek the featured attraction

The majority of Team Austria's players suit up for Erste Bank Liga teams. Not surprisingly, six represent league champion EC Red Bull Salzburg, Austria's richest and most talent-laden club. The most prominent players, however, are those who play abroad.

The real featured attraction in Innsbruck is Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek. The player's decision to join his national team for the tournament in his home country has shined a brighter spotlight on Austrian hockey than it typically receives.

So far, Austria hasn't disappointed the crowds, which have turned out in big numbers to root on the home team and get a chance to see Vanek play. Both of Austria's games to date – an 8-0 win against South Korea and a 10-5 triumph against Great Britain – have drawn sold-out crowds at 3,100-seat TWK Arena. Vanek recorded a hat trick against the Brits and has six points in the two games.

Team Austria coach Lars Bergström chose veteran Red Bull Salzburg standouts Thomas Koch and Dieter Kalt to be Vanek's linemates. Both players are Austrian national team regulars.

This year, Koch slumped during the Erste Bank Liga regular season (10 goals, 43 points in 46 games) after racking up 30 goals and 76 points the previous season. However, he came on in the playoffs. Kalt, a former member of Swedish club Färjestads BK and the Long Beach Ice Dogs of the now-defunct International Hockey League, had 22 goals and 38 points for Red Bull this season.

After Vanek, the biggest names on the Austrian squad are former Chicago Blackhawks prospect Mattias Trattnig (now with Red Bull Salzburg) and a trio of players who currently ply their trade outside Austria: former Minnesota Wild center Christoph Brandner, goaltender Bernd Bruckler and forward Oliver Setzinger.

Brandner, 32, now plays for the Hamburg Freezers of Germany's DEL. The 24-year-old Setzinger, a former Nashville Predators prospect, played in the ECHL for the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies. He then moved to Switzerland to join the SCL Tigers of Langnau. 

Bruckler, 26, is a former Philadelphia Flyers prospect. After a standout college career at the University of Wisconsin and brief stints in the AHL and ECHL, Bruckler signed with the Espoo Blues of Finland's SM-Liiga. Widely regarded as one of the top club-team goaltenders in Europe this season, Bruckler backstopped Espoo to the SM-Liiga final, but was unable to stop Kärpät Oulu from capturing its fourth championship in the past five years.
Two easy wins

Austria opened the tournament against South Korea. The Koreans are a new Division I entry, having been promoted after winning the Division II Worlds in their home country last year. The team is expected to be relegated to Division II at the conclusion of this tournament, and was decidedly mismatched against the Austrians.

Just 1:48 after the opening faceoff, Austria had the only goal it would need on a day where it outshot the Koreans, 47-9. Brander received a pass on the tape from Setzinger and beat goaltender Ho-Seung Son for his first of two goals. Before the end of the opening period, Trattnig set up EC Villacher winger Roland Kaspitz, and Kalt tallied on the power play to make it 3-0.

The Austrians continued to pour it on in the middle period, extending the lead to 7-0. Vanek set up Koch early in the period and Setzinger in the latter stages. After EC Villacher's Thomas Raffl made it a 5-0 game, Son was pulled from the net and replaced by Hyun-Seung Eum. 

Buffalo Sabres star Thomas Vanek scores for Team Austria in a 10-5 victory agaainst Great Britain at the 2008 Division I World Championships. Vanek has six points in his first two games.
Thomas Vanek NHL video highlights
During the final 20 minutes, Austria more or less coasted after EC Villacher's Martin Oraze added a final tally just 52 seconds into the third period. For Austria, the 8-0 win marked the nation's biggest margin of victory since it downed Great Britain 10-0 at the 1994 IIHF World Championships in Bolzano, Italy.

In Team Austria's second game, it dropped a 10-spot on the Brits, but learned it couldn't simply dismiss the opposing team's attack. Much to Bergstrom's displeasure, the Austrian team immediately abandoned any semblance of team defense and instead tried to put on a show for the home crowd.

In a wide-open first 20 minutes, the clubs traded seven goals and 32 shots (21 by Austria), with the Austrians taking a 4-3 lead to the locker room. Oddly enough, Vanek's line didn't get in on the early goal-scoring bonanza. The first three Austrian goals were virtual carbon copies as Marco Pewal (EC Villacher), Kaspitz and ECH Linz defenseman Gerd Gruber potted rebounds.

After the first period, Bergström told his players in no uncertain terms that they needed to pay more attention defensively. He also challenged Bruckler, who let in a pair of iffy goals in the first period, to get more focused. But the goalie was hardly needed.

Austria limited the Brits to a single shot in the middle period. Meanwhile, the top line got rolling, as Koch scored a goal, and Vanek scored a deflection goal and added an assist to extend the lead to 7-3.

In the third period, Vanek tallied twice more to complete a hat trick. Setzinger added his second goal of the game. With 10 goals on the board and an insurmountable lead, the Austrians got a bit sloppy on the penalty kill late in the game. Britain scored on two of its final four shots to make it a 10-5 final. 

Apart from being a game Bruckler would rather forget – he stopped just 11 of 16 shots for an unsightly .687 save percentage – Austria accomplished what it needed to do.

As expected, the Austrians' toughest challenger is Kazakhstan. After two games, the Kazakhs are the only other undefeated team in the field. Today, Austria first faces a match with the Netherlands, while Kazakhstan takes on Poland. Barring an upset, the key game will be Friday when Austria and Kazakhstan clash head-to-head. Austria closes Saturday against Poland.

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