BERNE--Upon returning to the top division in 2005, Belarus hired Glen Hanlon to coach its national team at that year’s World Championship in Austria. At the time, it was a strange and unusual hiring in that Hanlon was coaching the Washington Capitals in the NHL. The Caps weren’t going to the playoffs, so Hanlon accepted the offer, the first time an active NHL coach went to the Worlds to coach a team other than Canada or the United States.
Hanlon was later fired by the Caps, but he continued his relationship with the Belarus team. He coached again in 2006, and in 2007 Curt Fraser took over for a season. In 2008, Fraser was the head coach and Hanlon his assistant, and this year Hanlon is again the head coach.
Now at their fifth consecutive World Championship in the top pool, Belarus has proved capable of being competitive most of the time, even pulling off the occasional upset. Heading into today’s quarter-finals matchup, the team has played 31 games since returning in 2005. Incredibly, 14 of those have been one-goal games and four more have been decided by only two goals.
Although the team’s overall record in those close games is only 7-11, there has been a marked improvement this year in Switzerland. For instance, in 2008, the team was in four games decided by a goal—and lost them all. This year, the team has been in four games decided by one or two goals—and has won them all!
Last year, Belarus played two phenomenal games on consecutive days, forcing a shootout against first Russia and the Czech Republic. Although they lost both games, just getting to the shootout against such powerful nations was an accomplishment. This year the team has been in two more shootouts, and won both, first against Slovakia and then mighty Finland.
Making gains at this high level of hockey is a slow and steady business. First, you have to get to the top pool, then stay there for an extended period. Next, you have to turn lopsided losses into close losses, and then turn close losses into close wins. Certainly the shootout is a contributing factor because not always the best “team” wins a three-player penalty-shot competition.
One of the big keys to success this year has been the play of Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Mikhail Grabovski. Last year he was limited to three assists in five games, but in 2009 he leads the team with three goals and six points. He is also second on the team in average ice time, logging an incredible 27:18 per game, an almost unheard-of number for a forward.
Consider that in 2005, Belarus scored just nine goals in six games, but the next year they scored 23 times in seven games and finished sixth in the final rankings, a tremendous success. This year the team has struggled scoring goals—just eleven in six games—and after Grabovski the team lacks offensive skill, the key to victory.
The other main factor in success this year is goalie Andrei Mezin, who is second among all goalies here with a 96.43 save percentage. Mezin has allowed just five goals in four games, the best Belarus has ever done defensively. In 2005, the team gave up eleven goals, 14 the year after, then 31 in 2007, and 19 last year.
In short, Belarus has seen marked improvements in specific areas of play, and this has produced greater success. You need to be able to score goals at one end and prevent goals at the other, and you need to be able to keep the games close. Belarus has been doing that this year more than any other. Of course, Russia is the odds-on favourite in Wednesday’s first quarterfinal, but if Belarus can keep the game close, it has proved it can win.