International Ice Hockey Federation

Ceresnak saves Slovakia

Italy so close before OT defeat

Published 06.05.2017 19:21 GMT+2 | Author Andy Potts
Ceresnak saves Slovakia
COLOGNE, GERMANY - MAY 6: Slovakia's Andrej Stastny #59 and Italy's Diego Kostner #22 battle during preliminary round action at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Italy impresses despite a loss on its top-flight return, taking Slovakia to overtime in a lively afternoon encounter in Cologne.

Italy returned to the Elite Pool after a two-year absence – and immediately made its presence felt against Slovakia. The Group A outsider was just 64 seconds from claiming victory when Libor Hudacek tied the game at 2-2. Then, in overtime, Slovakia spared its blushes with a gamewinner from Peter Ceresnak to snatch a victory that was cruel on the brave Italians.

Ceresnak's goal came in the new-look three-on-three OT format; the D-man found space out on the blue line and flipped a wrister beyond the reach of the screened Andreas Bernard to grab an unlikely Slovak victory.

Slovakia's head coach, Zdeno Ciger, was a relieved man after his team recovered to edge the win. "This was a tough game, especially mentally," he said. "We had a very good start in the first part of the period and we scored, but everything changed after that. We had so many shots, but their goalie played really well.

"When they scored that second goal to take the lead, that was a really hard time for us. We are thankful for this win."

Italy's Giulio Scandella tried to put a positive spin on a disappointing finish. "Our goalie was definitely screened on the goal, he definitely didn't see it," said the forward. "Our confidence grows when we play these bigger nations. When we get that confidence in our game and don't show the other team too much respect, that's when we play our best hockey."

Few expected a great deal from Italy in this game, or indeed this competition. Yet, after a shot-shy opening allowed the Slovaks to claim a first-period lead, Stephan Mair’s underdog bared its fangs in the latter half of the game. Giovanni Morini tied the scores in the 36th minute before Luca Frigo tipped home a Scandella shot early in the third to put Italy up.

Admittedly, in the early part of the game, Italy seemed intent on meeting those low expectations. Mair’s roster, largely shorn of dual-nationals, relies heavily on young, locally-developed talent. Early on, those players struggled to adapt to the demands of this level of international hockey, seemingly reluctant to cross the red line in a performance that relied on rugged defence rather than offensive intent.

"For the first 10 minutes we gave them too much time in our own end, we played a little scared," said coach Mair. "They came hard and aggressive but the longer the game went on, we adjusted. Our goalie kept us in the game."

Bernard's form restricted a leaden Slovakia forward line to a solitary goal. Young defenceman Adam Janosik was the catalyst, seizing the initiative for himself in the seventh minute to surge through centre ice and bang a shot from the left channel into Andreas Bernard’s pads. The goalie allowed a big rebound and Michal Miklik duly swept it up from between the hash marks. Italy almost found an instant response when Alex Lambacher’s no-look pass from behind the net found Daniel Frank, but Julius Hudacek held on from point blank range to preserve his team’s lead.

Slovakia continued to hold the edge, with Italy mustering just five shots on goal in the first 30 minutes of play. That brought back echoes of the team’s problems in Minsk when it last graced this stage. Back then, Italy scored just six times in seven games on its way to relegation. But a somewhat careless Slovak penalty changed the flow of this encounter. With Martin Gernat in the box, Italy used its first power play to get a look at life at the other end of the ice. Slovakia killed the penalty, but a couple of minutes later the scores were level. Morini claimed the goal, stuffing home the bouncing puck as it looped off Julius Hudacek following Frigo’s angled shot from out wide.

Suddenly this was a different game, and a Slovak team that was also studded with World Championship rookies visibly lost confidence. Early in the final session, Italy scored again: Scandella, one of the wise old heads on Mair’s roster, circled back to a central position before firing a shot into traffic; Frigo got the touch that beat Hudacek and Italy, sensationally, led.

"When you get shots from the middle of the ice with guys in front of the net, good things happen," Scandella added.

Morini perhaps should have added a third soon afterwards when Scandella found space in the right-hand circle and pushed a tasty feed across the front of the net; the 22-year-old Lugano man couldn’t get a stick to the puck before it slipped to safety.

Slovakia sought a response. Miklik came close, but Bernard shut the door at the near post; a time-out with one-and-a-half minutes to play set the stage for a six-man assault. Now Miklik shot again from distance, the rebound went to Libor Hudacek whose effort from a tight angle found the net off Bernard’s chest. Relief for Slovakia, deflation for Italy, which was just 64 seconds from victory.

"We could taste those three points near the end," said defenceman Thomas Larkin. "We played stronger as the game went on and it's a shame we only came away with one."