Can Germany repeat the 'Wunder von Pyeongchang?'
To be exact, Germany's men's national ice hockey team came within 55.5 seconds of winning the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. That's when NIkita Gusev pounced on a rolling puck just to the right of Danny Aus den Birken, slashing it into the top corner.
That sent the game into overtime – in which the Olympic Athletes from Russia sealed their gold medal.
In almost any other circumstance, that German team would have been remembered for missing out on gold. However, given the country's previous history in the sport, the silver medal is remembered as their greatest triumph.
Pyeongchang 'an incredible experience'
"It still gives me goose bumps. There are a lot of emotions involved, like film sequences that have stuck (with me)," German Hockey Association (DEB) sporting director Christian Künast told DW four years after that Sunday evening in South Korea.
"It was just a great time, an incredible experience," added Künast, who had been behind the bench as an assistant tothen-German head coach Marco Sturm.
What played into Germany's hands four years ago was the fact that for the first time since the 1994 Lillehammer Games, there were no National Hockey League (NHL) players at those Olympics. Powerhouses like Canada and the USA were unable to ice entire teams picked from their hundreds of NHL stars, while nations like Germany, with just a handful of players in the world's top hockey league, weren't nearly as depleted. All odds were off when it came to who would be in the medal hunt.
'The same tournament as in 2018'
A great many NHL stars who would have expected to be named in their national teams for Beijing were deeply disappointed by the league's decision not to release them for a second consecutive Olympics, this time due to COVID-19. Among them was German superstar Leon Draisaitl, but despite his disappointment, he recently pointed to a possible silver lining for the reigning medalists.
"There's no question that Germany's chances are better, that's quite clear," the 26-year-old Edmonton Oiler told DW. "At the end of the day it's the same tournament as in 2018. I wish the guys good luck and I hope that they can repeat what they did in 2018 – only maybe with a gold medal."
Had it not been for the NHL's refusal to make its players available for reasons other than a pandemic, Seattle Kraken netminder Philipp Grubauer, like Draisaitl, would almost certainly have been in then-coach Marco Sturm's lineup in 2018. He too has high hopes for Germany in Beijing.
"It's an incredible squad. Very young, we also have players who now have experience in the DEL (Germany's top tier) and in other leagues – Tobi Rieder and (Tom) Kühnhackl provide great NHL experience," Grubauer told DW.
In fact, Rieder, Kühnhackl as well as Dominik Kahun and Korbinian Holzer, who have also returned to play in Europe, have more than 1,000 NHL regular-season games between them.
"The goal is gold. It's not, 'yeah, now let's see what works.' The guys, I'm sure, want to win gold," Grubauer added. "You've seen now that silver is possible, so why not gold?"
However, sporting director Künast sees "no advantage for Germany" in the absence of NHL players in Beijing.
"It doesn't matter whether they have 20 NHL players or 20 others – nations like Canada, the USA, Sweden or Finland will have very, very good teams... We would have had a very good team with our NHL players, we also have a very good one without them. It's the same for the other nations."
Competing with confidence
The man who replaced Sturm as head coach, Toni Söderholm, has picked up where his predecessor left off. Most recently Germany finished fourth at last year's World Championship in Riga – coming within a goal of reaching the gold-medal game. While he undoubtedly would have loved to have players like Draisaitl, Grubauer, Tim Stützle, Moritz Seider or Niko Sturm on his roster, like his boss Künast, Söderholm is bullish about the chances of his Europe-based squad.
"The guys know what they can do. They can compete with confidence," Söderholm told the national broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung before departing for Beijing. He added that his "hope" was that Germany would make it to the semifinals where they could "battle for the medals."
Every game a battle
However, while what everybody remembers from 2018 is the silver medal, much easier to forget is how Marco Sturm's men struggled at the start of the tournament. Having lost their first two games in Group C, Germany finally got into the win column by beating Norway in a shootout. The rest of their path to the final was on a knife's edge too, with overtime wins over Switzerland and Sweden, followed by a one-goal victory over Canada. It was a thrilling, but by no means dominant run.
Perhaps that's why, despite his confidence in the squad, Künast also strikes a cautionary tone.
"The trend over the past few years has been quite good. We are fifth in the (IIHF) world rankings. That's a snapshot of one moment in time," he said. "We know that there are a few behind us who were previously ahead of us. Overall, it's very tight all the way down to 14th place."
As the silver medal holders, Germany won't be surprising anybody in Beijing either. They'll have to battle for every goal and every result, but these are contests they have become much more accustomed to winning in recent years than in the dark past that was 2014 – when they didn't even qualify for Sochi.
Heiko Oldörp contributed to this article.
Edited by: James Thorogood