After a tough first 10 minutes, the French fought back to defeat Austria 5-2 on Friday. The result keeps France’s slim quarter-final hopes alive, while Austria’s fears of relegation have worsened.
"I think we controlled the game overall," said defenceman Yohann Auvitu. "We deserved the win. I think that now, with six points at this stage of the tournament, we can say we’re safe. So we made our goal."
Damien Fleury and Sacha Treille led the way with two goals apiece, and Teddy Da Costa also scored for France. Eighteen-year-old Worlds rookie Alexandre Texier added three assists, while captain Stephane Da Costa and Kevin Hecquefeuille had two apiece.
Captain Thomas Hundertpfund and Michael Raffl replied for Austria. Dominique Heinrich chipped in two assists.
In this hard-fought, tense affair, France’s Florian Hardy won the battle of starting goalies with Bernhard Starkbaum. Shots favored Austria 36-30.
This was France's first victory since thumping Belarus 6-2 last Saturday. It was exactly the tonic they needed as they strive for a positive conclusion to longtime head coach Dave Henderson’s swan song with the national team. Henderson, whose tenure dates to 2005, will be replaced by pioneering French NHL forward Philippe Bozon next season.
The next French game is Sunday versus the Czech Republic, who rode new NHL additions David Pastrnak and David Krejci to a 4-3 overtime victory over Russia on Thursday.
"You see when those guys are coming from the playoffs, the intensity and the rhythm they have is way above the World Championship," said Auvitu. "We saw it yesterday: they were flying over the game. Once again, when we play against the top nations, you make half a mistake and you take a goal [against]. We just have to be solid and make as few mistakes as possible."
The Austrians haven't secured a single point since their opening 3-2 overtime loss to Switzerland. Coach Roger Bader's men now face a virtual must-win situation against pointless Belarus on Saturday.
"After the start, the French team came back hard," said Hundertpfund. "They went hard on us. They put us under pressure and we couldn’t handle the pressure. We got a little nervous, I think."
Austria got a great start at 3:32 thanks to its transition game, catching the French napping. Heinrich picked up the puck in the neutral zone and fed it ahead to a streaking Hundertpfund, who zinged one over Hardy’s glove.
Things got worse for France. Just after dumping the puck in, veteran defenceman Florian Chakiachvili was shaken up when Patrick Spannring hit him into the boards at the French bench, back-first. The trainers assisted Chakiachvili off the ice, and he would not return.
"He left the game and he wasn’t even in the locker room," Auvitu said. "It looked pretty bad. To be honest, it’s hard to believe there was no call on that. I really hope he’s well."
Rallying defiantly, the French tied it up at 10:00. Standing in front as Stephane Da Costa blasted the puck into traffic, Fleury snared a puck that Starkbaum lost track of momentarily, and pivoted to slide it past the goalie’s left skate for his second goal of the tournament.
At 13:10, Les Bleus went up 2-1 on the power play. Texier rushed the puck to the net from the right side and Sacha Treille pitchforked it in during a scrum. Stephane Da Costa then had a glorious opportunity alone in front, but put the puck off Starkbaum’s blocker and stick.
In the second period, the French pressed for their next goal, and the atmosphere was testy. Fleury nullified a mid-period man advantage when he fired the puck at Starkbaum and then knocked the goalie over while rushing to the net.
Austria took just 29 seconds on the power play to make it 2-2 at 11:22. Heinrich floated one off Hardy's glove, and Raffl, the lone Austrian NHLer (Philadelphia Flyers) here, was right there to bang it in.
At 14:11, Fleury had an answer with a two-man advantage, snapping a one-timer through Starkbaum's blocker arm from the left faceoff circle in Ovechkin-Lite fashion. It was his team-leading third goal of these Worlds.
"It was tough for us to come back in the game," said Hundertpfund. "We had some stupid penalties where they scored the game-winning goal, and that can’t happen at this level."
Moments after Lukus Haudum missed a great opportunity at the side of Hardy's net, the French rushed back down and made it 4-2 at 17:49. Texier made a deft back pass to Teddy Da Costa, who used the Austrian defenceman as a screen before beating Starkbaum five-hole.
The Austrian fans behind their goalie chanted "Osterreich!" with commendable persistence, but this gap would prove insurmountable.
Just 1:06 into the third period, Texier found a streaking Treille with a nice head-man pass, and he stickhandled in off the right side before fooling the goalie on the backhand for a 5-2 lead.
It was pure frustration for the Austrians, who outshot France 19-5 in the final stanza. Hardy slid across to foil Hundertpfund on a 2-on-1 with 12 minutes remaining. And later, French forward Floran Douay got mixed up with Starkbaum during an ineffective Austrian power play and knocked his mask off.
Now Austria's challenge will be to forget about this disappointment and give everything they can against the Belarusians. Otherwise, their first visit to the elite division since 2015 will be a short one.
"We had a good third period against France," said Hundertpfund. "We have to play like that for 60 minutes to win a game in this tournament. We want to do that tomorrow."