There’s a good chance you’re lying if you said you knew much about Austria’s Sebastian Wraneschitz prior to the World Junior Championship.
Unless you keep a close eye on the ICE Hockey League that’s mainly played in Austria, you haven’t seen a ton of Wraneschitz. And even then, his stats are nothing special. He bounced around Austria, Sweden and Finland last year to minor success. His lone international appearance of note prior to this tournament was a victory at the 2019 U-18 World Championship – but in Division IB, a third-tier event. He had nothing to do with Austria’s gold at the Division IA U-20 World Junior Championship a year ago, either. That was 19-year-old Alex Schmidt.
And yet, here we are. Talking about a goaltender with 14 goals allowed over two games. But behind that large number is a much, much larger one: Wraneschitz’s 119 stops over two games, including an eye-opening 61-save performance against Sweden on Monday to keep the game close. Sweden, one of the favorites to win gold, could only beat Wraneschitz four times, including twice on the power play. If Wraneschitz didn’t start that game, it could have been closer to 11-0 again.
The Austrians couldn’t have asked for a better performance from their 18-year-old goaltender, who is eligible to return in 2022 when relegation is thrown back into the equation. By all accounts, Wraneschitz’s play has been a true underdog story.
The tournament is no stranger to inhuman-like performances from some of the most unknown entities between the pipes. Benjamin Conz became the stuff of legend at the 2010 tournament when he faced over 300 shots in the tournament – 45 shots per game, on average – and stole the spotlight in a shocking 50-save performance against Russia to lead Switzerland over Russia at the quarter-finals. Five years later, Denis Godla made 224 saves in an effort that saw Slovakia leave with a shocking bronze medal, marking one of the best underdog performances in international hockey during the 2010s.
For reference, at the current pace of 67 shots per game, Wraneschitz is on pace to face 268 shots in the preliminary round. It’s unlikely he’ll play every minute of every game moving forward, but that’s one of the busiest workloads we’ve seen in quite some time.
“I see every game as an opportunity to help my team,” Wraneschitz said following Monday’s game. “I’m going in like every game is the same.”
At least he has the clichés down pat.
Austria was never going to be much of a threat in a group dominated by Sweden, Russia and USA, but it could have a bit better. Thimo Nickl and Kilian Zundell, two of the team’s best defenders, missed the tournament due to COVID-19. Luis Lindner, who has skated on Austria’s top pairing in the meantime, is typically a left-winger. So when you’re wondering why Austria is struggling to keep the puck out of your zone, it’s because they’re not close to full strength.
It’s unlikely we’ll see Wraneschitz selected at the NHL draft last summer, just like Conz and Godla before. He wasn’t really high on anyone’s radar and wasn’t selected in 2020, his first year of eligibility and a two-week-long tournament won’t change that. But that doesn’t matter right now. What we’re seeing is a young man having the time of his life.
Regardless of where he ends up in the future, Wraneschitz can brag to his friends that he got to represent his country at the highest level of junior hockey, something very few Austrian goaltenders have ever done thanks to making the top group just twice before 2021. Even if he has a couple of stinkers along the way, he proved he can give his team everything he’s got. Wraneschitz could be a star in his native land and perhaps be the replacement for long-time Austrian national team goalie Bernhard Starkbaum (with whom he shares the crease with in Vienna).
But right now, we’re just having fun following a goaltender who’s simply having fun playing at the biggest stage of his career. You just can’t help but cheer for the underdog.