After nearly a year of Olympic qualifiers that began in Bulgaria last October, three rounds of play and 28 teams competing for just three spots in PyeongChang, the final slots were today locked up by Norway, Slovenia and Germany for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
In Oslo, Norway rebounded from an early loss to Kazakhstan in the tournament opener to meet France in a winner-take-all game, in perhaps the final national team game at Jordal Amfi. Despite trailing on an early Yorick Treille goal to start the second period, Mats Zuccarello brought the Isbjørnene back with the equalizer. And with Les Bleus facing penalty trouble throughout the game, Norway capitalized in the nick of time, with a Mattias Norstebo strike on the power play with just 2:29 remaining officially punching Norway’s ticket to Korea with the 2-1 victory. Completing out the group was Italy, finishing last in the group.
In Minsk, it was Slovenia who had to hang on after nearly blowing their lead to give the victory to Belarus on enemy ice. The Risi, propped up by a pair of power play goals from Rok Tičar, gave up a pair of goals to Andrei Stepanov, including a late power play marker, to send the game to overtime. But despite a few late opportunities for both sides, including a missed Jan Urbas penalty shot for Slovenia, it was Tičar that struck in the shootout for the 3-2 game winning goal, with Andrei Kostitsyn being stuffed by Gašper Krošelj on the Bisons’ final chance, sending Slovenia back to the Olympics. Also in this group was Denmark, finishing a disappointing third, and Poland in last.
In Rīga, it was a similar predicament for Germany against the hosts Latvia, as the Träger der Adler also blew a 2-0 lead on a pair of power play goals, with Latvia tying things up at 6:19 of the third period. But it was a late Kaspars Daugavins tripping penalty that opened the door for Tom Kühnhackl, the Pittsburgh Penguins rookie who just joined the national team after his recent Stanley Cup win, popping in the game winning rebound with just 5:09 to go. Latvia could not equalize again, and unlike Slovenia’s win, Germany clinched their first Olympics trip since 2010 with the 3-2 regulation win. Austria and Japan rounded out the group, finishing #3 and 4, respectively.
With the final three teams qualified, the groupings for 2018 are now clear. Group A was already established with Canada, Czechia, Switzerland and hosts Korea; Group B now sees Slovenia join the United States, Russia and Slovakia, forming an identical group to 2014 (which Team USA won); and Group C sees Norway and Germany join Sweden and Finland. With the last hurdle clear, it is now full steam ahead to February 2018 in Korea!