Austria fights to survive
Austria fights to survive
Will retooled team prosper under Ratushny?
At the 2013 IIHF World Championship, the Austrians got relegated in Helsinki with just two wins: 6-3 over Latvia and 2-1 over Slovakia in a shootout. Their fall from grace at the 2014 Olympics was even more crushing. Austria faced Slovenia – a nation with less than 150 senior male players – to open the playoffs, and hopes of advancing to the quarter-finals seemed bright.
However, after the Austrians lost 4-0, their federation regretfully made public that seven players had broken curfew the night before the big game. Then-coach Manny Viveiros told the Austrian broadcaster ORF: “To do something like that before what was probably the most important game in modern Austrian hockey history is really very disappointing.”
Changes were promised, and there will be fresh faces on this squad. What we’re about to do is find out whether this is merely cosmetic surgery – or whether the Austrian national team has gotten a heart transplant.
Not too much has changed between the pipes. Bernhard Starkbaum will be the starter after a solid season with Brynas of the Swedish Hockey League. While his Sochi numbers were abysmal (83.1 save percentage and 8.40 GAA), he was good enough to backstop Austria to second place and promotion at last year’s Division I tournament. Starkbaum was the only Austrian netminder who saw any action there, and he’ll be busy again.
Dominique Heinrich was named Best Defenceman at last year’s Division I tournament. Coming off a career-best year with Red Bull Salzburg (10-25-35), the diminutive 25-year-old will be expected to quarterback the power play. Veterans like Mario Altmann (VSV EC) and Florian Iberer (Vienna Capitals) will need to show poise amid a raft of newcomers. This isn’t the tournament’s biggest blue line, and the Austrians will struggle against the powerful forwards of teams like Canada and Sweden.
Scoring could be harder to find for Austria than a bad Mozart opera. Thomas Vanek, Austria’s top NHL forward, is unavailable since his Minnesota Wild have reached the second round of the playoffs. Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders won’t be in Prague either after an injury-plagued season.
So Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers will be the lone current NHLer up front. In Austria’s final exhibition game against Canada, a 4-2 defeat, he scored one goal, while Raphael Herburger, a savvy center who plays for Biel of the Swiss NLA, chipped in the other. Rarely noted for their defensive prowess, the Austrian forwards will need to guard against bad turnovers in the neutral zone.
As a player, head coach Dan Ratushny appeared in just one NHL game, in 1992-93 as a member of the Pavel Bure-era Canucks. However, he boasts an extensive international resume, highlighted by a 1992 Olympic silver medal from Albertville. And as the bench boss of the Austrian champion Red Bull Salzburg, Ratushny knows his Prague personnel well, as the squad will be loaded with Salzburg players. This former corporate lawyer will preach an intelligent, up-tempo style, but must also realize that he doesn’t have the firepower to play run-and-gun with the top teams.
Austria enters this tournament 16th in the IIHF World Ranking. Avoiding relegation is the goal for this group, and it won’t be easy. The Austrians are overmatched in virtually every department. The Group A games against France, Latvia, and Germany will be crucial. If the Austrians are back for 2016, that’ll be a triumph.
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