COLOGNE – Kazakhstan adopted a new national anthem, “My Kazakhstan”, in 2006, but it's only been heard once at a top-level IIHF World Championship. The occasion was a 5-0 win over Slovenia at the '06 tournament in Latvia, en route to relegation.
Will the Kazakhs get to belt out some patriotic lyrics this year in Cologne? They're facing tough opposition in Group A, which includes other former Eastern Bloc countries like defending champion Russia, Slovakia, and Belarus.
Yet the Kazakhs, who are loaded with hardened KHL veterans, can't be completely discounted. They posted five straight wins at the 2009 IIHF World Championship Division I Group A tournament to secure promotion to the elite division for the first time since 2006. How long will they get to stay up?
Kazakhstan's hopes of remaining among the world's top 16 nations would benefit hugely from a fine performance by veteran goalie Vitali Yeremeyev. With the financially floundering Dynamo Moscow team, he amassed a 2.37 GAA and 93.7 save percentage in 33 games this season. Yeremeyev was named the KHL's Goalie of the Month for December, posting an impressive three straight shutouts. The 34-year-old former New York Rangers prospect also represented Kazakhstan at the 2006 Olympics.
Alexei Kuznetsov is another name to watch between the pipes. The 27-year-old is the starting goalie for Barys Astana, the KHL franchise in Kazakhstan's capital city, and he surrendered just three goals in three starts in Division I competition last year.
Optimally, 36-year-old veteran Alexei Troschinsky will anchor the Kazakh blueline. With 20 seasons of Russian league play under his belt and multiple league titles, he knows what it takes to succeed. Two-time Olympian Vladimir Antipin, who turned 40 in April, will also bring the voice of experience.
Yet realistically, this group lacks the size, strength, and skill to contain the high-powered attack that, say, Russia will throw at it. And while three D-men notched four points apiece during last year's Division I run, there's no Mike Green or Sergei Gonchar equivalent to spark the power play.
Not being able to insert forward Nikolai Antropov into the lineup will hurt Kazakhstan's offence. The 29-year-old right wing, who led the Atlanta Thrashers with 67 points this season, has a hip injury and is scheduled for surgery. Spartak Moscow captain Dmitri Upper is also unavailable for personal reasons, and Metallurg Novokutznetsk's Fedor Polischuk is out with a damaged collarbone.
The national team's offensive go-to guy at last year's Division I tournament was the man with arguably the hardest name to spell in international hockey: Vadim Krasnoslobotsev. The 26-year-old forward managed three goals and six assists there, and put up 21 points in an injury-hampered 42-game season with Barys Astana in 2009-10.
Ilya Solarev, who scored both goals in the clinching 2-1 win over Slovenia last year, will get a chance to build on those heroics. The 27-year-old, who plays for Barys Astana, isn't much of a gunner normally, though: he had just nine points in 37 games this season.
Remarkably, shifty left wing Alexander Koreshkov is still suiting up for Kazakhstan at age 41. To put things in perspective, he debuted professionally with Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk around the same time Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union (1984-85). It's a testament to his endurance, but also raises questions about whether the Kazakhs are developing enough depth at forward.
All in all, it'll be difficult for Kazakhstan to put the puck in the net at this level.
Andrei Shayanov will guide Kazakhstan for the first time at a top-level IIHF World Championship. The head coach of Barys Astana took over from Yerlan Sagymbayev last year after Kazakhstan failed to qualify for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Shayanov's big challenge will be to make sure his team focuses sufficiently on defence to limit scoring opportunities at even strength, and then manages to capitalize on special teams. Kazakhstan converted on nearly 28 percent of its power plays in Division I last year; that won't happen again in Germany, but the Kazakhs have just enough skill to do some damage if given open ice.
Kazakhstan has never won an IIHF World Championship medal, and 2010 won't see the end of that drought. Interestingly, the former Soviet republic's slim hopes of making it to the Qualification Round will probably rest on just how well Glen Hanlon inculcates solid defensive structure. Why?
Well, the 53-year-old former coach of Belarus was hired in March to coach Slovakia, and Kazakhstan will confront both nations in Group A. Hanlon sparked a renaissance in Belarusian hockey, starting in 2005, with his insistence on NHL-calibre checking and positioning in the defensive zone, and will undoubtedly preach a similar mentality with Slovakia. So Kazakhstan has to hope the Belarusians have forgotten what they learned from the redheaded, Canadian-born ex-NHL goalie, and that the Slovaks haven't been paying attention.
Otherwise, in the most plausible scenario, Kazakhstan will clash with teams like Italy and France in the Relegation Round, and strive to get its anthem played at least once or twice.