Swiss spring past Belarus

Julien Sprunger’s pair of power play goals make the difference

05.05.2008
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Quebec City Quebec Canada

Switzerland celebrates after taking a 2-1 lead over Belarus. IIHF/HHoF/Matthew Manor

QUEBEC CITY – With a solid 2-1 win over Belarus on Monday, Switzerland moved on to the Qualifying Round for the 11th straight year. The Belarusians must now battle France on Wednesday to avoid relegation play.

Julien Sprunger, a 22-year-old Fribourg-Gotteron forward who was drafted by Minnesota in 2004, scored both Swiss goals. Konstantin Koltsov replied for Belarus.

Belarus bolstered its lineup with four NHLers: Ruslan Salei of the Colorado Avalanche, and Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, and Mikhail Grabovsky of the Montreal Canadiens. But despite their speed, strength, and high-level experience, they had little impact. Salei picked up an assist. Andrei Kostitsyn took a misconduct with about four minutes left, and Sergei joined him in the sin bin in the last minute after Belarus was caught with too many men on the ice for the second time in the game.

“They’ve come from playing in the NHL playoffs, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster,” said Belarus coach Curt Fraser of his latest additions. “I’m looking for them to be much better and contribute more in the next game.”

“The game against France is a must-win,” said Salei. “We must get better.”

The early tempo was greater than the number of quality scoring chances for either side. Despite a steady stream of hooking and interference calls, neither team broke through on the power play. That is, until Julien Sprunger unleashed a howitzer from the left faceoff circle that beat Belarus goalie Vitali Koval on the stick side at 13:01 for a 1-0 Swiss lead.

At 8:34 of the second period, Belarus drew even thanks to aggressive forechecking by Konstantin Koltsov, who fought off Swiss defenceman Philippe Furrer, took the puck to the net, and deposited it past Switzerland’s Martin Gerber.

Sprunger gave the Swiss a 2-1 lead with 5:24 left in the middle frame, positioning himself perfectly in the slot to tip Thibaut Monnet’s power play blast from inside the blueline. The play was video-reviewed and deemed good.

Two players wearing #10 stood out in the dying minutes of the second. Oleg Antonenko came close to tying it for Belarus when he rang one off Gerber’s right post on a power play. Then Andres Ambuhl managed to nullify the Belarusian man advantage when he raced in on goal and attempted a backhand deke, obliging Salei to take a hooking penalty.

The Swiss cracked down defensively in the third period. Although the Belarusians got four power play opportunities of varying lengths, they couldn’t solve Gerber, but rarely tested him either.

“We knew it would be a one-goal game ever since we saw a year ago that they’d be in our group in Quebec City,” said Swiss coach Ralph Krueger.

Switzerland outshot Belarus 31-23.

“We knew the Kostitsyn brothers were good, and that it was a strong team off the rush,” said Gerber. “We said we had to be careful and avoid giveaways.”

The plan worked. As a result of this win, the Swiss will most probably qualify directly for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

This was the reverse of what happened in 2006. When Belarus beat Switzerland 2-1 at the IIHF World Championship in Latvia, it was a crucial Qualifying Round victory that propelled the former Soviet republic into the quarter-finals. Belarus finished sixth that year under Glen Hanlon’s guidance, its best-ever result.

Here, Belarus had to do without Aleksandr Makritsky, who suffered some eye bleeding in the first game against Sweden after a high-sticking foul by Rickard Wallin. The defenceman is under medical observation, and the Belarusian management hopes he’ll return to action in the tournament. This is Makritsky’s twelfth IIHF World Championship.

Longtime Swiss captain Mark Streit, reportedly nursing an injury, will not suit up for his country in Quebec City, even though Montreal has been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. It’s the first time Streit hasn’t participated in a World Championship since Ralph Krueger took over the Swiss national team in 1998.

Switzerland completes its Preliminary Round Wednesday versus Sweden.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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