KOSICE – With good reason, the pressure on Belarus to make some strides at the World Championship before they host the tournament is starting to increase. Belarusian fans aren’t unrealistic; they’re not expecting their team to contend for a medal. However, at least getting the quarter-finals on the radar map before 2014 is something that seems realistic.
The 2014 host nation hasn’t been able to improve on their success at the World Championship – they actually took a bit of a step backwards last year, finishing in 10th place, one place below their 2009 finish. With all of the investment in the country’s hockey infrastructure for 2014, the pressure for some improvement is growing.
The plan, at least heading into the tournament, will be to share goaltending duties between veteran Andrei Mezin (Dynamo Minsk, KHL) and Vitali Koval (Atlant Mytishi, KHL). Both men had strong seasons. Koval finished with the fourth best goals against average in the league (2.07 GAA) and Mezin was ranked sixth (2.11 GAA). However, Koval was injured leading up to the tournament; and his status still wasn’t completely clear. In the event that Koval isn’t healthy, international veteran Sergei Shabanov (Neman Grodno, BLR) will likely serve as the backup to Mezin.
The defence is anchored by the tandem of Vladimir Denisov (Ambrì-Piotta, SUI) and Nikolai Stasenko (Amur Khabarovsk, KHL). The two logged over 20 minutes per game at last year’s World Championship, with Denisov being occasionally paired up with Ruslan Salei (Detroit, NHL). Of course, there will be no Salei this year, with Detroit moving on to the second round of the NHL playoffs. That is a big hurt for Belarus. Salei was Belarus’ best player one year ago. Sergei Kolosov (Grand Rapids, AHL), Viktor Kostyuchenok (Dinamo Minsk, KHL) and Alexander Ryadinski (Yunost Minsk, BLR) all return from last year’s team.
The good news up front is that centre Mikhail Grabovski (Toronto, NHL) is coming off the best season of his NHL career (29 goals, 29 assists, 58 points) and is excited about this year’s team.
“I’m always excited to play for the national team,” Grabovski told reporters in Toronto at the end of the season. “This World Championship isn’t too far from Belarus, so my family and friends will be able to come.”
More good news for Belarus came in the form of Montreal’s exit from the first round of the NHL playoffs. Left-winger Andrei Kostitsyn will definitely join the team, although possibly not until the second game of the tournament.
Kostitsyn’s last World Championship appearance was 2008. Another of last year’s top scorers, Dmitri Meleshko (Dinamo Minsk–KHL) is back and looked good in pre-tournament games.
It’s not all good, however. The team’s leading goal scorer from 2010 - Alexei Kalyuzhny (Avangard Omsk, KHL) - is a question mark for the start of the tournament. According to reports in the Belarusian media, Kalyuzhny is suffering from “an unknown virus”, and was travelling to Moscow to be checked by a specialist.
After a five year run of North American coaches – Glen Hanlon for three years and Curt Fraser for two years – the Belarusian federation last year decided to go with Minsk native Eduard Zankovets weeks before the start of the tournament. This will be his second World Championship behind the bench as head coach for Belarus and, unlike last year, he’s had a little more time to prepare.
Think skilled and speedy when you think of Belarus. They will, as usual, test some of their stronger opponents – they dropped a couple of close games last year to Russia and Finland. Belarus open against Canada and then will have to face Switzerland, meaning that their third game, against France, will likely determine whether they move on to the qualifying round or to the relegation round. The qualifying round is a good bet, with an overall finish between 9th and 12th.