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Italy and Kazakhstan Rejoin Elite for 2012 Worlds

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It may have been the expected result of this year's two Division 1 Men's World Championship tournaments, but the path to rejoining the top 14 teams at this year's World Championships next year in Sweden and Finland was anything but expected.  First, both Italy and Kazakhstan had to play their way back on hostile ice, as both Hungary and Ukraine were expected to be their main roadblock to the gold medal no matter where the tournament was played.  Having to play it in front of 7000-8000 fans cheering for their main opposition provided an additional challenge, and by overcoming it for overtime wins on Saturday, both teams definitely showed not just superior talent, but great resolve under adversity. 

For Kazakhstan, the 3-2 OT win over Ukraine also showed the ability to rally from behind under these circumstances.  Early in the third period on Saturday, Ukraine took a 2-1 lead on a goal by Oleg Tymchenko at 5:08 of the 2nd period.  While that result might have made things look good for Ukraine, it was actually Great Britain who was sitting pretty.  The Brits had upset Ukraine 5-3 to open the tournament, and kept Kazakhstan close, losing by only a 2-1 margin, and they also won their other three games in regulation.  If Ukraine won by one to three goals, it was Great Britain who were going to advance to their first elite level World Championship tournament since 1994.  With 7:38 to play, Kazakhstan's Andrei Gavrilin, who plays for Barys Astana of the KHL, scored to even the game, and despite some close calls from Ukraine down the stretch, that 2-2 score held into overtime.  The winning goal by Fyodor Polishuk was essentially the icing on the cake for Kazakhstan, allowing them to boast of an undefeated record in Division 1B action.  Great Britain's strong tournament resulted in a silver medal, still better than most expected of them, but they were just 7:38 away from gold.

Kazakhstan's gold matches their early accomplishment in the Asian Winter Games back in February, which they won on their home ice in Astana over Japan.  Japan, BTW, did not participate this year at the Division 1A tournament as originally scheduled due to the fallout from the earthquake/tsunami in March.  They will be given the same amount of World Rankings points as last year and will be allowed back in Division 1A next year on an exemption.

Italy, meanwhile, had to win one less game in Division 1A to advance as a result of Japan's withdrawl, but the tournament was still set up for a big showdown in the final game with the hosts from Hungary.  Budapest fans showed up in droves to support their home team, as Hungary continues to try to return to the top level of the World Championships, which they reached in 2009 for the first time since before WWII.  Hungary is very serious about advancing their hockey program, so much so that the President of the country, former Olympian fencer Pal Schmitt, met with IIHF President Rene Fasel about ways to increase participation and the competition level of the sport.  Both teams went undefeated against the likes of South Korea, The Netherlands, and Spain to set up the winner take all final.  No scenarios depended on the specific result of the game, just win whether by five goals in regulation or in a shootout, and a spot at the 2012 Worlds is yours. 

Italy started off the game strong, building a quick 2-0 lead on goals by Michael Souza and Giulio Scandella against Hungarian goaltender Zoltan Hetenyi, who was a surprise starter.  In went former OHL goaltender Levente Szuper, who quickly settled the Hungarian team as they started to chip away at the early deficit.  Scandella scored again for Italy, but goals by Viktor Tokaji, Ladislav Sikorcin and Marton Vas had this game tied up by the end of the third period.  It was a wide open game, with the shots 55-48 after regulation in favour of Italy.  The winner take all overtime was short, as Armin Helfer buried the winner before the period was a minute old.  Daniel Bellissimo went the distnace in goal for Italy for the 45 save win.  Italy, who have been at the top level of the Worlds in four of the past six years, will return in 2012.

Of note as well in the Division 1s is that most likely next year the format will change, with Division 1A being made up of the six highest ranked teams outside the elite division, and Divison 1B the next six ranked teams.  Essentially, the A and B distinctions will be irrelevant, and they will be two seperate levels of differing quality.  So a medal at this year's tournament was the only way you'd have a chance at promotion to the top level in 2013.  In that light, the bronze medals for Ukraine and South Korea (their highest ever finish) were important, although South Korea might be treated as a 4th place team due to the Japan withdrawl.  We'll see how it all sorts out.  Here is the final ranking for teams 17 and lower in 2011 (unofficial):

2011 World Championship Standings
Rank Country 2012 Tourney
17 Kazakhstan Kz_medium Championship
18 Italy It_medium Championship
19 Hungary Hu_medium Division 1A
20 Great Britain Gb_medium Division 1A
21 Ukraine Ua_medium Division 1A
22 South Korea Kr_medium Division 1B*
23 Poland Pl_medium Division 1B
24 The Netherlands Nl_medium Division 1B
25 Lithuania Lt_medium Division 1B
26 Spain Es_medium Division 2A
27 Estonia Ee_medium Division 2A
28 Romania Ro_medium Division 1B
29 Australia Au_medium Division 1B
30 Croatia Hr_medium Division 2A
31 New Zealand Nz_medium Division 2A
32 Serbia Rs_medium Division 2A
33 Iceland Is_medium Division 2A
34 Belgium Be_medium Division 2B
35 China Cn_medium Division 2B
36 Mexico Mx_medium Division 2B
37 Bulgaria Bg_medium Division 2B
38 Ireland Ie_medium Division 3
39 Israel Il_medium Division 2B
40 South Africa Za_medium Division 2B
41 Turkey Tr_medium Division 3
42 Luxembourg Lu_medium Division 3
43 Greece Gr_medium Division 3
Japan Jp_medium Division 1A
DSQ North Korea Kp_medium Division 3
DSQ Mongolia Mn_medium Division 3