PRAGUE, Czechia -- Off the ice? Friends. On it? No chance.

That's the approach a pair of Minnesota Wild teammates are taking when they get set to go head-to-head at the 2024 IIHF World Championship on Sunday with, potentially, a guarantee of remaining in the tournament's top group next spring.

"We are both battling for the same thing," said Wild forward Mats Zuccarello, the only NHL player skating for Norway at the 2024 Worlds. "We're friends outside the rink.

"But during the game we both want to try to win for our team."

At almost any cost. Even if the pair were attached at the hip for much of the 2023-24 campaign in Minnesota.

"No friends," declared Marco Rossi, the only full-time NHLer for his Austrian squad. "It's going to be fun. 

"I've seen him a couple times at the hotel.

"We've just been joking around."

And that'll end quickly, according to teammate Joel Eriksson Ek.

Eriksson Ek, playing in Group B in Ostrava, knows what it's like to go up against a teammate after helping Sweden dispatch of Team USA -- and forward Matt Boldy and coach John Hynes -- in preliminary round play to open the tournament over a week ago.

"When you're out there, you're on different teams," Eriksson Ek said. "They're both very competitive as well. Every player is competitive and wants to win for your team and your country.

"I'm sure if they'll get into a battle they won't be friends.

"But I'm sure after the game they will."

With Eriksson Ek's expertise, there likely won't be a playful barb back and forth between Rossi and Zuccarello, even after spending considerable time together spanning from September to April. 

In all, the pair shared the ice for exactly 587:28 this past season -- a nearly 10-hour tour with Rossi down the middle and Zuccarello on his flank. Together, they owned a 52.17 percent goals-for share and generated 66.67 percent high-danger goals for, according to Natural Stat Trick. They had positive possession metrics as well.

"He's a smart player," Zuccarello said of his Sunday foe. "He scores on his chances. I like how he plays with smartness... that's his biggest thing. And he's still fresh in his NHL career. I'm sure he's going to get better and better every year."

In all, Rossi totalled 40 points (21 goals, 19 assists) in 82 games as a sophomore in Minnesota, and has added three points (one goal, two assists) for Austria at the Worlds.

Zuccarello 36, had 63 points (12 goals, 51 assists) in 69 games with the Wild, and four points -- all assists -- for Norway over the past week-and-a-bit.

"He's such an intelligent player," Rossi said. "He makes such smart reads and good decisions. When you play with him you just have to get open and he will find you... it doesn't matter where you are."
Where each finds himself now is in a potentially precarious position, depending on their round-robin rendezvous.

Austria sits sixth in the eight-team Group A at the World Championship in Prague, collecting a total of four points in five games after a stunning comeback resulted in a 7-6 overtime loss to Canada, and was followed by upsetting Finland 3-2 in regulation with a literal last-second goal.

The efforts from Austria have earned a "pretty good" grade from Rossi.

"Maybe the first period is where we need to be better," the 22-year old said. "We always seem to have sleepy starts. It happens. We have to learn from that. We're going to be ready against Norway."

Norway slots seventh in Group A with a total of three points in five games. Their lone win came in a 2-0 shutout against Denmark, with "normal" losses coming to Switzerland, Canada, Czechia, and Finland.

"I think we've lost to the better teams," Zuccarello said. "We've got two games left that are on level as a team that we have to beat. We have to play some good hockey to beat them. All in all, I would say it's a normal tournament for Norway. We lost to Canada, Czechia, and Switzerland, which is normal for us. We have to play a perfect game to have a chance to beat one of those teams. We haven't really done that.

"We've got to learn. Everyone's working super hard, blocking shots, and doing whatever it takes to try to win every game.

"That's how we roll."

Each team remains ahead of Great Britain in the Prague group, but neither Austria nor Norway has had a head-to-head matchup against the winless squad.

The wiggle room, as a result, is minimal at best. 

The two teams finishing last in final ranking at the 2024 Worlds, taking into consideration all participating teams, will be dropped from the 2025 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A.

No relegation round. No chance at salvation.

That's a step down neither side wants to take.

And it makes Sunday's matchup a big one for both Minnesota members.

"It's big," Zuccarello said. "As a Norwegian group, our goal is to stay up in the 'A' group every year. We have to get a couple more points to have a chance to stay up. It's a big game tomorrow."

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