After the party...
After the party...
Last year’s host Belarus hopes to impress again
And the team was inspired to buck its lowly pre-tournament ranking and reach the last eight. One year on, though, the euphoria has faded and new head coach Dave Lewis is focusing on a team that works hard and plays with heart, rather than one capable of upsetting the odds again.
On its day, though Belarus can be tricky opponent for its Group B rivals: in recent warm-up games it posted wins against Slovakia and Norway, but also suffered heavy back-to-back defeats in Denmark. A steady influx of players joining the roster throughout April – perhaps culminating with the arrival of Mikhail Grabovski from the New York Islanders – offers some hope that the team can find greater consistency once the puck drops against Slovenia on Saturday.
Kevin Lalande helped CSKA Moscow to top the KHL’s regular season table and claim the Russian championship, and he’ll likely be first pick for Belarus here. He might have been born in Kingston, Ontario, but after a successful spell playing for Dynamo Minsk he adopted Belarusian citizenship and played a big part in taking the host nation to the quarter-finals in 2014, posting 93.8% across five appearances in Minsk.
Vitali Koval, who shared goaltending duties last time out, has endured a frustrating season, making just 11 appearances for Salavat Yulayev Ufa in the KHL and not featuring in any of Belarus’ games this term. Stepan Goryachevskikh of Yugra Khanty-Mansisk and Igor Brikun of HK Gomel have also featured in recent games.Continue reading
The loss of experienced D-man Vladimir Denisov, who has declined the call-up after a long post-season with Ak Bars in the KHL, is a big blow. In addition Roman Graborenko, a rising prospect with the New Jersey Devils, is also unavailable at his club’s request. Those two absentees put real pressure on the Belarusian backline which now lacks obvious leadership. Much of the responsibility will now lie on Nikolai Stasenko of Severstal Cherepovets, who is likely to be the most experienced player available amid a crop of blue liners drawn from the Belarusian league and the North American college circuit.
All eyes are likely to be on Mikhail Grabovski after the New York Islander saw his play-off commitments abruptly halted by the Capitals on Monday night. Head coach Dave Lewis is confident that he’ll be welcoming Grabovski to the roster in Ostrava now his NHL season is over. If he can rekindle his partnership with Sergei Kostitsyn and the duo comes close to repeating the 16-point haul they shared last year, Belarus will enjoy far brighter prospects. Elsewhere, though, it’s another tale of absentees: Geoff Platt and Konstantin Koltsov have opted not to join up with the national team, while Alexei Ugarov and Dmitri Meleshko are recovering from injury. Veteran Alexei Kalyuzhny, who finished last season at Dynamo Minsk, is set to return once again while Andrei Stas joined the squad after CSKA Moscow’s play-off campaign ended in the conference final.
Glen Hanlon stood down from his post after leading Belarus to the quarter-finals on home ice a year ago – and replacing him hasn’t been straightforward. Vladimir Krikunov briefly returned to the post he held in in 2002 and 2003, but after disappointing results in the European Ice Hockey Challenge games against Austria, Slovenia and Japan he stepped down and returned to his former club team.
Dave Lewis is currently behind the bench, returning to the country where he assisted Hanlon at the 2009 Worlds in Switzerland and worked with Mikhail Zakharov at the Vancouver Olympics. Now the former Islanders D-man is preparing for a tilt at a major tournament in his own right and he is looking forward to the task despite some setbacks during April’s preparations.
“Looking at the way we played in second period I thought that if we can play like that in the Worlds, with that kind of team spirit and heartfelt effort, I’ll be totally satisfied with this team,” he said after losing the final warm-up game 3-2 against Group B rival Norway.
A year ago on home ice Belarus was inspired by some vocal support and hauled itself into the quarters before falling to eventual bronze medallist Sweden on a tight 3-2 verdict. Matching that would be a superb result for Lewis and his players, but it demands a good start. Victory in the opening game against Slovenia would set Belarus up nicely for a meeting with unpredictable Slovakia – who recently succumbed in a shoot-out in Bratislava during the pre-tournament preparations – and a clash with Denmark. But a slow start could put this team in all sorts of trouble with the big hitters – USA, Russia and Finland – lying in wait as the group stage progresses.
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