After nearly two year of Olympic qualifiers that began in Luxembourg and China in November 2019, four rounds of play, 36 teams competing and a global pandemic in between, came to a conclusion today for the final three spots in Beijing, with the spots being clinched locked up by Slovakia, Latvia and Denmark for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In Bratislava, it was the host team that needed just one point over Belarus in order to advance, by virtue of Poland’s surprising 1-0 victory over Belarus to open the tournament. Sitting back and playing a more defensive game after Peter Cehlárik opened the scoring for Slovakia just over four minutes in, Belarus did manage to tie on a Yegor Sharangovich goal to open the second period, but the Bisons could not solve the Slovak defence or keeper Branislav Konrád a second time. And just four seconds after Belarusian goalie Danny Taylor was pulled for the extra attacker, Libor Hudáček buried the empty netter to send the capacity Bratislava crowd into a frenzy. Slovakia won the group and clinched their eighth straight Olympics with three wins, while each Belarus, Poland and Austria finished with one win each.
Meanwhile, in Rīga, it was winner take all between hosts Latvia and France, who dispatched Hungary and Italy earlier in the tournament. A first period tally from Rihards Bukarts and second period power play goal from Miks Indrašis had Latvia not only seemingly destined to head to Beijing, but to do so without conceding a goal all tournament. But when Stéphane Da Costa scored with less than ten minutes to go in the game, ending Ivars Punnenovs’ remarkable shutout streak, the Arēna Rīga quickly went quiet, leading to a thrilling final half of the third period, with Punnenovs fending off an extra French attacker to hold on for the 2-1 victory. This marks Latvia’s fifth Olympics in the past six games, returning after missing the 2018 PyeongChang Games.
And finally, in Oslo, it was again winner take all between hosts Norway and Denmark, but this time it was the Lions playing spoiler at Jordal Amfi. The Danes did not let up for the entire sixty minutes, with goaltender Sebastian Dahm pitching a 26-save shutout, while Frederik Storm broke a scoreless stalemate with two minutes remaining in the second period to put Denmark up 1-0. The Isbjørnene were in full attack mode throughout the third period, but Dahm stood on his head, and before Norway had the chance to pull keeper Henrik Haukeland, Danish sniper Nikolaj Ehlers (who led all Qualification scoring with a staggering five goals and nine points in three games) was sprung on a breakaway, burying the winning goal with 3:12 left in the game to clinch Denmark’s Olympic debut. Slovenia and South Korea finished in third and fourth in the group, respectively.
With the final three teams qualified, the groupings for 2022 are now clear. Group A was already established with Canada, Germany, the United States and hosts China; Group B now sees Denmark join Czechia, Switzerland and the defending champion Russian Olympic Committee, and Group C sees Slovakia and Latvia join Sweden and Finland. With the last puzzle piece now in place, it is now full steam ahead to February 2022 in Beijing!