Belarus prepares for battle
Belarus prepares for battle
Will former Soviet republic make QF again?
Competing in Group B in St. Petersburg, Belarus has a good chance to make the quarter-finals for the third consecutive year. That streak began when Minsk hosted the 2014 Worlds and set a new attendance record of 640,044 (surpassed last year with the Czech Republic’s mark of 741,690).
This year, Belarus faces many challenges with the defending champion Canadians, the 2015 bronze medalist Americans, and the always-dangerous Finns in the same group. The Belarusians will need lots of hard work, a little luck, and vocal support from their devoted fans to keep the streak alive. But familiarity and continuity on the roster could aid their cause.
Belarus brings a trio of competent goalies with previous Worlds experience. This year, Kevin Lalande shared the net with Dmitri Michalkov with the KHL’s Dynamo Minsk. The Canadian-born Lalande, 29, has carried the load at the last two tournaments since being naturalized. He’s capable of stealing a game with his quick, athletic style. Lalande recorded 28 saves in a 5-2 upset over the Americans last year.
Michalkov returns to the Worlds for the first time since playing for the 14th-place Belarus teams of 2012 and 2013. He has never won a game at this level in five career appearances. And veteran Vitali Koval may be nearing the end of the road at age 36. Once a rival between the pipes to Andrei Mezin, the hero of the 2002 Olympic quarter-final upset over Sweden, Koval saw limited playing time this year with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and Vasteras of the Swedish second division this year.
Expect the D corps to play hard for Lewis, but don’t expect a lot of offense. There is no bona fide power play quarterback here, let alone an heir apparent to the late, great Ruslan Salei. Dynamo Minsk’s Ilya Shinkevich led the blueliners with a goal and two assists at the 2015 Worlds. With a view to player development, it’s nice to see 21-year-olds from that club like Yevgeni Lisovets and Nikita Ustinenko continuing to get a shot with the national team. If the Belarusian defence moves the puck quickly out of its zone and keeps it simple, things will be all right.
Last year, the top line for Belarus was on fire. Brothers Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn, both ex-NHLers, teamed up with veteran captain Alexei Kalyuzhny to produce 26 points in seven preliminary round games. It’s not inconceivable that they could do it again this year. Andrei is coming off his best KHL season ever with 20 goals and 19 assists for Sochi HC.
After that trio, the scoring drops off considerably. For instance, Yevgeni Kovyrshin chipped in three goals last year, but that was his best-ever output in seven Worlds, and the 30-year-old only had four goals in 51 games with Severstal Cherepovets this season. Another smallish centre, 22-year-old Artur Gavrus of Dynamo Minsk, stepped up with two goals and three assists in his second Worlds last season.
Hope may come from a pair of expatriate Canadian ex-NHLers. Geoff Platt, who debuted for Belarus in 2014, had a strong season (21-14-35) for Gagarin Cup finalists CSKA Moscow. He could play on the same line as Dynamo Minsk’s Charles Linglet, who is aiming to bounce back after injuries limited him to 16 KHL games.
While this group of forwards isn’t devoid of youthful promise, there is no Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine here. Strong positional play is a must since they will be at a disadvantage in terms of strength, speed, and size against the upper-echelon nations.
Hiring Canadian coaches has paid off for Belarus. Four out of its five top-eight World Championships finishes have come under Canadians: sixth in 2006 (Glen Hanlon), eighth in 2009 (Hanlon), seventh in 2014 (Hanlon), and seventh in 2015 (Dave Lewis).
Lewis is back behind the bench again this year. The 61-year-old former bench boss of the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins has come a long way in international hockey since his 2011 debut, in which he guided Ukraine to a third-place finish at the Division I Group B tournament in Kiev. Known as a player’s coach, Lewis stresses both attacking and defending as a group, which is critical with a team that doesn’t burgeon with natural talent.
One challenge he’ll face here is getting his troops to play solid defence while also not adopting an overly passive stance – the latter approach is sometimes the downfall of former Soviet republics in hockey. On face value, it’s remarkable that Belarus came seventh in 2015 while allowing an average of 3.46 goals per game, the second-worst in the tournament. To keep that in perspective, 16 of those 28 goals were allowed in the 7-0 round-robin loss to Russia and the 9-0 quarter-final loss to Canada.
If Belarus can steal a point or two in its first three games against the Finns, Americans, or Canadians, that would be a huge plus. It’s not out of the question. Last year, Belarus not only surprised the U.S., but also managed a 3-2 shootout loss to Finland.
After that, there are no sure things in the remaining four preliminary round games, but on any given day, Belarus is capable of beating Slovakia, Germany, newly promoted Hungary, or France. On balance, a third consecutive quarter-final berth for this nation would qualify as a minor surprise.
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