Tuesday, May 17, 2016

2016 IIHF World Championship Report

Today is the final day of the Preliminary Round of the 2016 IIHF World Championships. For the most part, there have not been any major upsets at this year's tournament, which sees most of the favorites at the top of their respective groups.

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In Group A, the Czechs lead with a record of 4 wins with one overtime win and one overtime loss for 15 points, the key win being their surprising 3-0 win over Russia on the tournament's opening day.

Russia is next, also with 15 points from five wins and that loss to the Czechs. Sweden will finish no worse than third, as they have 13 points from 3 regulation wins, 2 overtime wins and one loss, that also to the Czechs.

Denmark played their seventh and final game of the round yesterday, an essential 4-1 win over Kazakhstan. This elevated the Danes to 11 points and fourth place in the group, with only the top four advancing to the Quarterfinals on Thursday. They are the authors of perhaps the biggest upset of this year, having defeated the Czechs 2-1 in a shootout. They are a team on a roll, as following their 10-1 shellacking by Russia, they have earned consecutive wins over Latvia (3-2 in a shootout), the Czechs and the Kazakhs for 7 points in three games.

Sebastian Dahm #32 photo Sebastian Dahm 32.jpg
Denmark's Sebastian Dahm in their shootout win over the Czech Republic

Denmark must now await the result of fifth place Switzerland's final game against the Czechs. Anything less than a regulation win for the Swiss will advance the Danes into the Quarterfinals for only the second time in their history and first since 2010.

The Swiss hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Denmark should they prevail in 60 minutes, having defeated the Danes 3-2 in overtime. They find themselves in this must-win situation due to a slow start, having dropped points with a shootout loss to Kazakhstan in their first game, followed by a 4-3 overtime loss to Latvia. They then required overtime to beat Denmark, leaving a total of 5 points on the table from games against teams they were favored to win. They then earned the full three points versus Latvia thanks to a winning goal with just 1:29 remaining in regulation. They were then defeated by Russia and went to a shootout against Sweden before losing, letting a valuable point, if not two, slip away. With the Czechs having secured their place in the next round, will a desperate Swiss team be able to take advantage of a possibly complacent Czech Republic squad?

Latvia is currently sixth with 6 points and, while no longer eligible to advance to the playoffs, their spot in the 2017 World Championships is secure thanks to taking a point off Sweden in their first game and the Czechs in their second. They also split the points with Denmark and took care of business with a regulation win over Kazakhstan.

Norway is seventh with 5 points from an overtime win over the off-form Swiss and their win over the Kazahks.

While Kazakhstan had a dream start to their tournament, defeating Switzerland in a shootout for 2 points, six consecutive regulation losses failed to add another point to their total, dooming them to relegation to Division I Group A for next year. That said, they did give a good accounting of themselves while losing 6-4 to Russia, 4-2 to Norway, 3-1 to the Czechs and 2-1 to Latvia.

Over in Group B, Canada and Finland are undefeated with 6 regulation wins each and a head to head showdown for the Group A win in today's marquee game. On the line is the right to face either Denmark or Switzerland on Thursday rather than Sweden or Russia, so both sides will be sufficiently motivated to push for the victory.

Germany has been the surprise of the tournament, much to the delight of the Italians. Germany completed their Preliminary Round schedule yesterday and has 13 points and will finish third in Group B. After losing to France in a shootout between next year's co-hosts of the World Championships, they then lost to Finland 5-1. They responded with a 5-1 hammering of Slovakia prior to a 5-2 loss to Canada. They again rebounded with their own 5-2 win over Belarus before defenseman Korbinian Holzer's game winning goal with just 33 seconds remaining took the full three points from the United States. They then punched their ticket to the Quarterfinals with a 4-2 win over Hungary.

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Thomas Greiss of Germany and the New York Islanders,
holds off the United States in their key victory

But why are the Italians so happy with Germany's success? Italy finished second in this year's Division I Group A tournament and earned a conditional promotion to next year's World Championships, providing Germany and France did not finish 7th and 8th in Group B this year. With those two nations being co-hosts next year, their places in the 2017 edition are secure no matter what their record this year, and had they been in a relegation situation, it would have come at the expense of Italy, who would have then remained in Division I Group A for next year, but are now secure to join the Top Division for 2017.

The next key game has likely already begun, if not ended by the time you read this, as the fourth and final playoff spot in Group B is on the line at 5 AM eastern time on the NBC Sports Network, as the United States takes on Slovakia. The US has 9 points from 3 wins and 3 losses, while the somewhat disappointing Slovaks have 2 wins and 4 losses for 6 points. If Slovakia can win in regulation, they will tie the Americans at 3-4 records for 9 points and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. All the US needs is to get to overtime and the final playoff spot will be theirs, win or lose.

The US finds itself in a precarious position thanks to one single game, their heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Germany. Other than that, they have defeated the teams they should have and struggled against Finland and Canada, earning no points from those two games.

Slovakia finds themselves in even more desperate straights, having not only lost to Germany by a resounding 5-1 score, but also having been upset by Belarus 4-2 in regulation. After winning their first two against Hungary and France, they have since lost four in a row without earning a single point and were shut out in the last two games against Canada and the Finns.

Meanwhile, France has 5 points from a regulation and an overtime win, which is enough to ensure their survival on merit with one game left to play, having beaten Germany in overtime and Hungary in regulation.

Down in seventh place in Group B is where you will find one of the best stories of the 2016 edition of the World Championships in the form of Hungary. They last participated in the Top Division the World Championships in 2008 after being absent for 69 years, but they went 0-6 and were relegated back down again for the next six years, returning this year after finishing second last year in Division I Group A.

The Hungarians opened with a 4-1 loss to Slovakia followed by defeats at the hands of Canada, France, Finland and the United States before facing Belarus on Saturday. They scored the first two goals of the game by the midpoint of the first period, but then the Belarussians fought back to tie it before the seven minute mark of the second. Hungary then rallied for a pair of goals within 3:17 with seven minutes of the tying Belarus goal and sealed the victory with an empty net goal with three seconds remaining to secure their first win at the World Championships since 1939, a span of 77 years since the Hungarian anthem has played at the World Championships in an emotional celebration to rival any other you will see at this year's worlds.

Hungary's final game was a 4-2 loss to Germany, which leaves them with 3 points from their victory. Belarus also sits at 3 points with their final game against France to play. The French are secure in their place for next year, while Belarus' survival is on the line. Tied with Hungary at 3 points, Belarus has to win or at the very least reach overtime to secure a single point in order to climb over the Hungarians to safety for 2017 while all Hungary can do is cross their fingers, watch and hope.

With six games on the schedule today, nine of the 12 teams have something on the line today, particularly Switzerland, the United States, Slovakia, who have playoff spots on the line, and Belarus who have their survival to fight for. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden, Canada and Finland will be looking to put themselves in the most advantageous playoff position for Thursday.

Today's featured jersey is a 2009 Hungarian National Team Gábor Ocskay jersey that he would have worn in Switzerland had he been alive to do so.

Gábor Ocskay Jr. first gained recognition outside of his native Hungary at the age of 16 when he was the top scorer at the 1992 European Junior Championships C Pool with 10 points in just 3 games as he led the Hungarians to promotion to the B Pool.

He would go on to play for Hungary at the European U18 juniors twice, the U20 World Juniors twice, the World Championships 16 times in the B, C and D Pool and later at the Division I level and a round of Olympic qualifying, scoring 76 goals and 91 assists for 167 points in 122 games. He also played his hometown Alba Volán Székesfehérvár of the Hungarian Nationwide Championship League for 16 seasons, eventually scoring 307 goals and 446 assists for 753 points in 488 games.

He was a three time Hungarian Player of the Year, a two time Hungarian champion and won two bronze, two silver and a gold medal as he helped guide Hungary up the IIHF ladder, all the way to the Top Divsion by winning the Division I Group B championship in 2008, only without Ocskay, as he unexpectedly died on March 24th, 2008 of a heart attack at the age of only 33, just two days after winning the 2008 Hungarian championship. His passing hit the hockey fans in Hungary hard, and they remembered him by lighting candles at every ice rink in the country.

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Hungary 2009 jersey photo Hungary2009B.jpg

Today's video section begins with highlights of Ocskay displaying his speed and offensive skills as he terrorized goaltenders from all over the world.

This next clip is a musical tribute to Ocskay and shows not only his hockey playing skills, but more about his life off the ice and the family man that he was.

Next, the last goal Ocskay ever scored for Hungary at the World Championships in 2008, an awesome dangle on a breakaway followed by a cool as an assassin backhander to finish the play.

Finally, the last two goals Ocskay ever scored, coming in Game 4 of the Hungarian League Finals for Alba Volán, both assisted by his linemate and lifetime friend #24 Palkovics.

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