It was do or die, and Austria delivered. With a 4-0 victory over Belarus on Saturday, the Austrians booked their tickets to the 2019 IIHF World Championship and sent their opponents down to Division I Group A. Three second-period power play goals sealed the deal.
After a difficult run here in Copenhagen, it’s a dream come true for coach Roger Bader and his cohorts. This marks the first time Austria will play in back-to-back top-division Worlds since 2004 and 2005. It's also the first time a newly promoted nation has managed to stay up since France in 2008.
"It was incredible," said defenceman Layne Viveiros. "I don't have the words for it, hearing the anthem and the fans at the end. I'm so proud."
With their first win of the tournament, the Austrians now have four points in Group A. Belarus remains pointless with one game left on Tuesday against Slovakia -- the World Championship host nation they won't visit in 2019. Instead, they'll play in Division I for the first time since 2004.
It's a major disappointment for the Belarusians, who fired head coach Dave Lewis after their first three losses to Sweden (5-0), France (6-2), and Russia (7-0). After replacing Lewis with assistant coach Sergei Pushkov, they have remained equally hapless. They've been outscored 29-4. Forward Yegor Sharangovich apologized afterwards to the people of Belarus.
"We all tried to get back in the game, but at 4-0, it's hard to recover, especially when we don't score many goals," said Alexander Kitarov. "The Austrians just sat back and defended, cleared the puck at every opportunity and regrouped. They never gave us a chance to hit back."
Konstantin Komarek set the pace with a goal and an assist for Austria, and Viveiros, Michael Raffl and Dominic Zwerger added singles.
Austrian netminder Bernhard Starkbaum recorded his first career World Championship shutout, while Belarusian starter Mikhail Karnaukhov was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals. Belarus outshot Austria 34-28.
Asked about the key to this win, Starkbaum said: "Power. Everybody wanted it. We knew we could achieve something special, something that hadn't happened for 14 years. We showed up, we worked hard and finally we got the victory."
Overall, the Austrians have been neither good nor lucky at these Worlds, but luck was on their side to open the game. Viveiros surprised everyone in the Royal Arena when his left point shot bounced in off defenceman Dmitri Korobov to make it 1-0 at 4:14.
"The first goal, I have no words!" said Kitarov.
Austria nearly took a two-goal lead when Lukus Haudum cut to the net and knifed a backhander off the crossbar. Meanwhile, Belarus couldn’t get set up to generate any chances on two power plays.
"They came out pretty strong in the first period," Starkbaum said. "They had a couple of power plays, but our PK was excellent. We blocked lots of shots, we did all the dirty stuff. We took the pain, took it for the team, took it for Austria, and that's how we achieved it."
The game got more boisterous in the second period as the teams threw their weight around.
After Geoff Platt got knocked over in the Austrian end, the Canadian-born Belarus forward retaliated by tripping Daniel Woger with his leg. And at 10:38, Komarek made it 2-0 on the ensuing power play with a wrister from the right faceoff circle that sailed under Karnaukhov’s stick-side arm.
The Austrians struck again with the man advantage at 14:38, as Raffl cunningly tipped in another Komarek wrister. That was it for Karnaukhov, who was replaced in net by Vitali Trus.
With just four seconds left in the middle frame, Zwerger put Austria up 4-0, beating Trus high to the stick side. In their previous five outings, the Austrians had converted just twice on 14 man advantages -- but this was their third power play goal in a row.."
"This was our most important game of the competition, but it felt like we didn't really understand that," said Kitarov. "We're all experienced players. We shouldn't have allowed ourselves to get so emotional."
Special teams remained disastrous for the Belarusians in the third period as they failed to cash in with two 5-on-4's. The Austrian fans sang jubilantly as the clock counted down to salvation.
"The games yesterday and today were the games we focussed on all tournament, and we got the job done tonight," said Viveiros.
Belarus forward Sergei Drozd set a dubious new World Championship record against the Czechs when he played his 37th straight game without a point. Here, the 28-year-old extended his scoring drought again. It's just been that kind of tournament for Pushkov's players.
Austria wraps up group play against the Czech Republic on Monday.