Article written by David Wile - Community Contributor
Austria finds itself playing Olympic hockey for the first time since 2002. In Salt Lake City, they finished an inglorious 12th out of 14 teams, and expectations aren’t that much higher this time around. The Austrians don’t have the depth of Canada or the experience of Sweden. They’ve got no scores to settle, no bragging rights to claim. And unless you’re as fond of Klagenfurt golden-boy Thomas Hundertpfund as I am, they probably don’t have any of your favorite players. But boy, are they going to be fun to watch.
The team features only three NHL players, forwards Thomas Vanek and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders and Michael Raffl of the Philadelphia Flyers. Sixteen players ply their trade in their home country. Among national teams at Sochi, only the United States and Switzerland have as many players who players in the same country they’re representing as Austria. Black Wings Linz, who crashed out in the semifinals in last year’s playoffs, claims as many Olympians as the Stanley Cup finalist Boston Bruins.
Despite the fact that most of their players come from a relatively weak domestic league, the Austrians have an unexpected depth on offense. Fifteen different players on the current Olympic roster scored 25 goals in ten games during the Olympic qualification tournament and the 2013 IIHF World Championships. Except for 23-year-old defenseman Stefan Ulmer, who only tallied an assist, every single Austrian hockey player in Sochi that was involved in either of those two tournaments registered at least two points.
Austria’s defense, however, will determine just how far the team goes in Sochi. Seven defensemen play in the Austrian league, and the eighth plays in Switzerland. Thomas Pöck, with 118 games of NHL experience on his resume, is the most experienced of the bunch. The World Championships last May were a defensive disaster for Austria, who finished last in their group and allowed more goals than any other team in the tournament - 29 in seven games. Despite scoring a respectable 13 goals against the United States, Latvia, and Russia, the defense let 16 past goaltenders Bernhard Starkbaum and René Swette. The hosting Finns, who the Austrians once again find themselves facing in Group B, netted seven past a defense containing five of the same defensemen they’ll go up against on Thursday. If Austria doesn’t focus on its defensive discipline, the Canadians and the Finns are going to give the goal judge’s index finger quite the workout.
Even the newly-appointed Austrian captain brings an air of uncertainty to the team. Last week, Thomas Vanek gave the Islanders the old “it’s not you, it’s me” routine (literally), turning down a seven-year $50 million deal to see what free agency could offer him come July. Vanek will be spending the tournament walking a tightrope between showing off his skills to potential buyers and doing his absolute durndest to stay healthy. In lieu of a contract extension, the Isles’ front office hopes to deal Vanek before the March 5 trade deadline, so at least he’ll have their support in his tightrope-walking endeavor.
Austria punched its ticket to Sochi by scoring against the Germans in Germany with less than ten minutes to play to force overtime and earn a point to win their group. If they can maintain the dogged persistence that got them into the Olympics in the first place, they might be able to manage a surprise or two.
Note, game time and more info can be found at our schedule!