What a difference a week makes. 7 days ago, Team Kazakhstan was locked in a 1-1 draw with Slovakia late in the 3rd period at Werk Arena, seemingly poised to win a round-robin game and potentially earn a quarterfinal bid at the World Juniors. Kazakhstan would go on to lose 3-1 while dropping 9 other points in Group A, setting a different date – a best-of-3 relegation playoff with Group B’s Team Germany.
Group B’s caboose turned into a steam engine in the 2nd period of Thursday’s relegation-round opener, as Germany’s attack came alive and walloped Kazakhstan 4-0 to take a commanding 1-0 lead in the series.
The Kazakhs are now on the brink of relegation. Only 2 straight wins can save nation’s elite U20 status send Germany back to Division 1 instead.
For a period, at least, it appeared as though the winless Group A side might be able to out-play the WJC newcomers. Kazakhstan led 7-6 in shots following a cautious 1st frame in which the teams combined for just 1 minor penalty. Vladislav Nurek was solid on several German chances, including a close-range shot off a rebound from 19-year-old QMJHL forward Taro Jentzsch.
Germany established itself as the better team early in the 2nd. Lucas Reichel tallied on a blocker-side wrist shot to open the scoring at 21:11. Kazakhstan took 3 minor penalties trying to hold-off a German attack which took 19 SOG on the middle period. But it was Louis Brune’s even-strength goal with just over 8 minutes left until the 2nd intermission that turned Sergei Starygin’s counterattacking style on its head.
Now the Kazakhs had to slug it out, and that’s not a high-% game plan against a team that beat the host Czechs.
Team Kazakhstan once again out-shot Germany in the 3rd period, 13-10. But 17-year-old John Peterka notched his 4th goal of the 2020 World Juniors to make it 3-0 just 1:09 into the 3rd frame, and Maxim Musorov’s roughing penalty at the 50:48 mark led to a 2-man Kazakh disadvantage and allowed Dominik Bokk to deliver the coup de grace with 8:13 remaining. German GK Hendrik Hane stopped all 23 Kazakhstan shots to earn the shut-out.
It was Hane who made 23 saves against Team Canada in a 4-1 loss earlier in the tournament, keeping his U20 side in the game against the powerful Habs. Another solid performance from the teenage DELer, and the Germans could be back at the World Juniors in 2021.
Starygin’s squad faces a genuine scoring slump at a bad time. But that’s not the only worry for Kazakhstan going into Saturday’s Game 2.
The unlikely 2019 WJC survivors have utilized puck control at various times during the tournament, playing keep-away from dangerous teams like Switzerland. Swiss and Slovak forwards were fatigued late in Group A games in which Kazakhstan was aggressive in creating offense of its own. Kazakh coaches may be tempted to switch to wide-open tactics on Saturday, hoping to keep German forwards like Reichel and Bokk busy. But it could be fatal for a team that hasn’t held a lead in the 2020 event to find itself down by 1, 2, or 3 goals yet again.
Kazakhstan in a comfort zone is something we haven’t seen yet in the Czech Republic. If it happens, a surprise in the relegation round is still possible.
But time is running short – and may run out on Saturday.
Germany is a (-1400) Las Vegas favorite to win Game 2, which faces-off in Ostrava at 4 AM EST.
Image ATTN: Kazakhstan Ice Hockey Federation on Instagram