COLOGNE – Small and skilful, the Belarusians are a speedy and quick team that rarely wins the big game but plays in a way that always suggests they’re capable of doing just that. If they can somehow put all the pieces of the puzzle together at the eight time, they could be a quarterfinals team. Germany 2010 gives them another chance to try, and with their own hosting of the World Championship coming up in 2014, their program is only going to get stronger in the immediate future.
Vitali Koval and Andrei Mezin, the two goalies who split the goaltending chores at the 2010 Olympics, are back for Belarus and will shoulder the load. Both played this past season with Dynamo Minsk while the third goalie, Sergei Shabanov, played with Yunost Minsk. The 35-year-old Mezin is appearing in his tenth World Championship (to go with three Olympics) and is one of the anchors of the team.
Seven of eight defencemen from Vancouver are with the team, notably Ruslan Salei, the veteran of the corps. He’s joined by Nikolai Stasenko, Alexander Makritski, Vladimir Denisov, Sergei Kolosov, Viktor Kostyuchenok, and Alexander Ryadinski. The only blueliner making his senior team debut is Kirill Gotovets. The 18-year-old was drafted 183rd overall by Tampa Bay in last year’s NHL draft and played this past season at Shattuck St. Mary’s, a high school in Minnesota whose alumni include Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, and Ty (son of Wayne) Gretzky.
Okay, the Kostitsyn’s aren’t here, but Alexei Kalyuzhny is. He scored three of the team’s ten goals in Vancouver and is one of the team’s main offensive threats. He’ll be counted on with Mikhail Grabovski, who had an excellent tournament last year in Switzerland. The former played in the KHL this past season while the latter with Toronto in the NHL. Dmitri Meleshko is the third player with offensive skill on the team. The rest of the team played in Belarus or Russia, with the exception of Mikhail Stefanovich. The 20-year-old, drafted by the Maple Leafs in 2008, played with the Quebec Remparts this past year and had a fine rookie season. He and Gotovets are among the nation’s top prospects. He played for Belarus at last year’s World Championship and also played at the 2007 U20 Championship.
Eduard Zankovets has two big difficulties even before the team plays its first game on Sunday. First, he assumed head coaching duties only a month ago after first Glen Hanlon and later Mikhail Zakharov left the team. And second, the current players have had little time to skate together. They had planned to host a 4 Nations tournament during the U18 tournament but volcanic activity from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland prevented teams from arriving. As a result, Belarus is a team with a new coach and new players, starting from scratch with the 2010 World Championship. Having said that, Zankovets has been an assistant coach with the national team for several years, so he is familiar with the players and they with him.
Following an ninth-place finish in Vancouver two months ago, Belarus will be in tough to achieve as much here in Germany. In Group A with Russia, Slovakia, and Kazakhstan, their fate will be decided by the game against the Kazakhs most likely in the teams’ first game, on Sunday. The winner will likely move on and the loser headed to the Relegation Round. Given that the Kazakhs were in Division I last year, it’s a good bet Belarus will survive the first round of play, but going further is going to be tough. Like Germany, think 9th-12th place.