What to watch
While Belarus has played exceptional hockey thus far at the 2009 IIHF World Championships, Russia has been better. The Russian attack has proved unstoppable and improving with each game. The key will be to watch how Russia, undefeated in this tournament, attacks Belarus early in the game. Belarus has thus far found their confidence as games progressed and they established their style of play. If Russia can take advantage of some early opportunities and grab a lead, the pressure will fall squarely on Belarus to come back and step up their attack.
Who to watch
Russia has scored 32 goals in six games. What makes their scoring so deadly is the distribution among lines. At any point in the game, any one of the lines that Vyacheslav Bykov puts out on the ice can score. It is a balanced attack that does not rely on a single unit. Six players are tied for the team lead in goal scoring with 3; four players are tied for second with 2. Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the few NHL players on the Russian roster, leads the way with three goals and 10 points. Look for Kovalchuk to excel in these elimination games.
Russia’s power play and penalty killing is second in the tournament behind Canada. In almost every category Russia is either first or second. As they are so talented up and down the lineup, the Russians must guard against overconfidence. They cannot take Belarus lying down.
Ilya Bryzgalov has stepped up into the lead role in net with a 1.97 goals against average and four wins in four starts. Backup Alexander Eremenko has wins in both his starts in the tournament.
What to watch
It’s not pretty at times, but the Belarusian system of clogging up the neutral zone keeps games close and allows them the chance to win. It’s worked thus far as Belarus scratched out two shootout wins over Slovakia and Finland and qualified for the playoffs. The Russians will sorely test this system. Belarus has to be disciplined and not allow the Russians too many power plays. Against Hungary in the Preliminary Round, Belarus was not called for a penalty giving their opponents a power play.
Who to watch
What else can you say about the return of the most popular coach in Belarus hockey history. Glen Hanlon has worked his magic and has players functioning effectively within his system putting Belarus in the playoff round for the first time since 2006. More than any other coach among the recent bench bosses for Belarus, Hanlon has gotten the most out of his team and has them believing in his system, and their abilities to perform within it. Forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Oleg Antonenko are among the select forwards who form the basis of the Belarus attack. Sergei Demagin has also been coming on in key games.
In the two rounds of this tournament, Belarus has been able to play tight checking hockey and keep the opponents chances on the perimeter. When an opponent was able to get a quality scoring chance, Andre Mezin was there to stop them. Playing within their means saw Belarus extend Slovakia and Finland to overtime where in both games Oleg Antonenko scored the game winner. Mikhail Grabovski has turned in some highlight reel performances in the shootouts, and is dangerous in this aspect of the game. However, with shootouts there is one drawback: Russia clearly has the skilled players match Belarus and a decided advantage in this aspect of the game.
When Andrei Mezin is on his game, he’s, pound for pound, one of the top goaltenders in World Championship play. In 2006, he was spectacular and this time around he’s in the zone. Against Russia, Mezin will likely see a lot of pucks and needs to make some big saves to help build his team’s confidence. If anyone is up for the challenge, it is Mezin, who has been with the Belarusian national team through good times and bad; relegation and playoff rounds. He does not rattle easy and his steadying influence will be needed.