Here’s a wild guess – Germany’s pregame market to win Relegation Game 3 on Sunday won’t be 1-to-14 in London.
Not after what happened on Saturday in Ostrava.
Kazakhstan roared back from the brink of relegation at the 2020 World Juniors, whipping Germany 4-1 in a Game 2 victory that nearly saw goaltender Vladislav Nurek post the 1st shut-out of his international career.
The surprise outcome levels the WJC relegation playoff series at 1-1 with a next-day rubber match to face-off at 11 AM local time and 2 AM on the American west coast.
Unlikely resources gave Kazakhstan an edge in the early minutes. Scoring depth had been an issue for the otherwise-solid U20 squad going back to the Group A opener vs Switzerland. So had a tendency to fall behind too easily. On Saturday, 17-year-old Stanislav Alexandrov scored on a gorgeous backhand 1-timer to give the underdogs a lead just 4:39 into the 1st period, set-up by a sharp pass from Vladislav Saiko on the right wing. The pair of Kazakhstan forwards had combined for 1 point and 18 penalty minutes in 5 previous games.
Germany’s strong power play had whiffed on a couple of opportunities when WHL winger Nino Kinder was sprung on a partial breakaway for the favorites. Calm and collected, Nurek made a glove save to effectively end the period as skaters from both teams rushed the net.
Teamwork added to the Kazakhstan lead early in the 2nd. Maxim Musorov split the German defense and took a point-blank shot that was stopped by Hendrik Hane, but Oleg Boiko was there to put-away the rebound for a 2-0 lead with his 2nd tally of the tournament. As in the 1st frame Germany was able to produce late chances on net, but shots bounced off of goal posts, bodies, and sticks in the crease as Nurek somehow held the DELers scoreless.
Then Alexandrov scored 1 of the best goals of the 2020 WJC. On the 2nd shift of the 3rd period, Alexandrov stick-handled deep into the German zone, paused in the high slot, 180’d around a defender with the puck still on his forehand, and rifled a screen shot past Hane to give Kazakhstan a commanding 3-0 lead at 41:32.
Tobias Abstreiter’s side seemed resigned to waiting for Game 3 in the 3rd period, frustrated after firing 10+ more shots at Nurek with no results. However, a glimmer of hope arose for Germany as “Charlie” played once more on the rink’s loudspeakers with 6:19 remaining
Abstreiter pulled Hane for a 6-on-4 advantage and a desperate bid to close the gap, but may not have been prepared for the unorthodox Team Kazakhstan tactic that came next.
European and Asian teams are known for staid, scientific Xs & Os on the man-disadvantage, relying on the goalie to make simple saves. But the Kazakhs have been aggressive on the penalty kill at the World Juniors, and Saturday’s late-going was no exception. Germany had several chances on the 2-man advantage and nearly solved Nurek, finishing the game with 44 shots to Kazakhstan’s 22. But the underdogs knew an empty-net goal would book a deciding match on Sunday with no further suspense. Rushes went in both directions despite Germany’s superior numbers on the power play, and 18-year-old forward Denis Chaporov scored to salt-away the contest at 56:27.
Game 2 ended with a scary interlude for Kazakhstan. Nurek went down with the play in the German zone, and looked to be suffering from some kind of lower-leg cramp or knee problem. Head coach Sergei Starygin appeared to contemplate a goaltending switch, but Nurek told trainers he wanted to play on and try to preserve his shut-out. Luis Schniko scored a garbage-time goal for Germany with 89 seconds left, causing Nurek to skate away from his crease and curse in frustration. Was the goalie suffering from a sudden injury that rendered him ineffective?
The Kazakh contingent in Ostrava got a huge sigh of relief, as Nurek stopped several shots and looked agile and confident once again in the final seconds.
What’s strange about Kazakhstan’s 4-1 victory is that so many pundits are shocked to see it. Yes, it’s curious to see Germany get blown out, but there’s no question Kazakhstan has improved since 2019, a year in which the team walloped Denmark in a pair of relegation games. If a nation can survive at the elite level, then it can survive again, and the Kazakh junior squad can visit Canada again in 2021 with another win on Sunday.
Perhaps the London odds have been an indication of Germany’s power, not Kazakhstan’s weakness. Leon Draisaitl and other World Championship stars have vaulted German hockey to an untold ceiling, and it’s no coincidence that the country’s U20 program has out-grown its former role in Division 1. Still, a loss on Sunday would mean relegation – relegation after beating the tournament-host Czechs and bothering Team USA for 2 periods.
Humble apologies to Team Germany fans who would have known immediately, but this blogger misread key goaltending statistics after the WJC round-robin, describing Hane as a backup GK who rose to the forefront against Canada.
Quite the contrary – Abstreiter believes Hane is his best netminder and has hardly let another goalie touch the ice surface. Unfortunately, that also means the 19-year-old DEL rookie is partly responsible for Germany’s ugly goals-against total through 6 games in the Czech Republic.
Germany and Kazakhstan are more alike than different at the 2020 World Juniors. (Maybe Las Vegas and London have figured that out after taking a bath on Kazakhstan in Game 2.) Each flourishes with a lead, each struggles when behind. Each could post a shut-out or give up 5+ goals. Either U20 team could be celebrating its goaltender or preparing new netminders for Division 1 in 2021 within 24 hours.
More’s the pity for fans who’ve stayed awake overnight for the relegation round. Will there ever be a close game or will Game 3 turn into another romp?
We’ll know long before gold medals are won by Russia or Canada on Sunday.
Photo ATTN: Team Kazakhstan WJC on Instagram