Smash and Grab
Smash and Grab
Marksman inspires Austrian win
It's tough to be an underdog at the Olympic Games. Outsiders in this hockey tournament face a difficult decision - is it better to play tight, clog up the ice and block the play, looking for slender losses, or commission a star forward to go gung-ho in the hope of improbable glory despite the risk of heavy, morale-sapping defeats?
When Austria and Norway met to determine third place in Group B, it was a chance to see these twin philosophies go head-to-head. The early games saw the Norwegians opt for damage limitation, earning a creditable 3-1 loss against Canada but slipping to a 6-1 drubbing from the Finns. Austria, meanwhile, called on the scoring power of Michael Grabner, whose hat-trick startled Finland in a 8-4 loss before he was blanked in a 6-0 blow-out against the Canadians.
And it proved to be Grabner who pitched up front and centre as Austria picked up a confidence-boosting win - its first at the Games since 2002's success against Slovakia. The New York Islander opened the scoring in the fifth minute, placing a one-timer beneath the bar off a sweet pass across the face of goal from Thomas Pock to head up the tournament goal-scoring race.
Then he was involved as Michael Raffl doubled the advantage one minute into a power play. Grabner's pass picked out Raffl on the red line and he enjoyed an unopposed approach to the before sliding the puck between goalie Lars Haugen and defenceman Mats Trygg. Finally he wrapped up the scoring with 97 seconds left in regulation time with a fine opportunist goal, racing onto a Daniel Welser pass and coolly beating Haugen once again to take his personal tally to six points, currently the best in the competition.Continue reading
"It's nice to score goals, but I can't do it without my linemates," Grabner said after the game. "They're doing a great job of finding me. I'm just trying to get open. Our line has been creating a lot of offence."
Trailling by two inside seven minutes forced Norway to play a more adventurous game, but while Grabner looked sharp, the Norwegian offence seemed to be more of a blunt implement. A two-man advantage for 72 seconds saw the shot count leap upward, but even that Mats Zuccarello and Patrick Thoresen fired in on Mathias Lange the build-up remained ponderous. Austria's three men were able to hold their positions and watch as Zuccarello and Mathis Olimb stroked the puck from face-off spot to point without disrupting the Austrian wall.
Thoresen was left lamenting Norway's power play weaknesses on the afternoon. "We had a lot of opportunities on the power play and we did that pretty well in the first two games but today we didn't score on the power play," he said. "That was very important and it's something I'm asking myself about.
"Right now it hurts but we know we can do better than we did today."
Norway did find the target in the middle period thanks to a second goal of the tournament from Per-Age Skroder at 8:05. He scored on Lange at the second attempt, after firing wide of the goal and seeing Thoresen return the puck to him on the slot. That was Norway's first equal-strength marker in these Olympics.
But it was Austria which still looked more likely to add to the scoring. Grabner's fellow Islander Thomas Vanek fired off a shot from a tight angle which found the inside of Haugen's post and somehow bounced to safety. Moments later the goalframe came to Norway's rescue again as a zinger from Brian Lebler clipped the top of the bar.
Pock, architect of Grabner's opener, was pleased with the overall team performance at both ends. "When you have two teams which are equal it's a big deal when you get that first goal," he said. "Overall we played a really good team game. We didn't give them too many chances in our end, and when we did our goalie was right there."
At the other end Lange's most anxious moment came when he was felled by a big hit from Ken Andre Olimb. The Norwegian forward was chasing the puck behind the boards and slammed into the goalie, pushing his head back onto the post. Happily Lange was fit to continue while Olimb sat out an interference minor. Earlier the game had been delayed following another big hit as Andreas Nodl crunched Jonas Holos into the boards, shattering a panel of perspex next to the penalty box.
In the final session Grabner came out determined to add to his tally and make Austria's lead safe. An audacious early backhand flew just wide, then a mesmerising scoot from centre ice left two defencemen trailling in his wake before ending at Haugen's pads. At the other end Norway continued to battle - helped by two further power plays - but rarely carved out chances to really test Lange until the closing stages when the team rallied for a final surge for an equalizer and Austria got a chance to successfully display its own defensive fortitude before Grabner had the last word.
Austria's win gives it third place in the group while Norway still awaits its first success of the competition. The Norwegians have work to do, according to captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen. "We have to get some goals," he said. "Our PK has to get better, our PP has to get better. There's a lot of stuff to work on."
Austria, meanwhile, has no such shopping list of concerns and Andreas Nodl oslooking ahead optimistically. "Now we're in third place, hopefully we won't have to play one of the high-end teams next," he said.
The pairings for the Qualification Round will be confirmed after Sunday's remaining games.
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