The power of the Dynamo

Belarus’ KHL team determined to reach playoffs this time

09.10.2010
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Slovak Olympian Jozef Stümpel is one of the new players on the Dynamo Minsk roster. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

MINSK – During any hockey season many teams have hot and cold streaks, but only a few teams can came close to  Dynamo Minsk’s inconsistency. The KHL team went from red hot in mid-September to ice cold already in October.
Despite efforts to draw foreign teams into the league, the KHL is still made up mainly of Russian teams with only three exceptions. While Latvia’s Dinamo Riga and Kazakhstan’s Barys Astana made the playoffs last spring, Belarus' Dynnamo Minsk lagged behind with a 22nd-place finish in 2009 followed by 17th in 2010. The number of wins increased from 15 to 23, but it hasn’t led to a playoff berth so far.

This year, Dynamo Minsk is eager to end the drought.

The Belarusians came out red hot this season and even set a new KHL record for single-game attendance. With six wins in its first nine games, Dynamo Minsk was performing better than powerhouses Dynamo Moscow, SKA St. Petersburg and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The Minsk team also posted a new club record with a five-game winning streak in mid-September.

The results were surprising given the fact that the Belarusian team had to cancel plans to acquire more imports due to a lack of funds. But the players that did arrive fit in nicely.

Five came from Barys Astana including Slovak veteran Jozef Stümpel. The forward might be older, but he still provides solid leadership on and off the ice. That’s why he was named captain.  Stümpel was joined by former Florida Panthers wunderkind David Nemirovsky, Russian forwards Maxim Spiridonov and Konstantin Glazachev as well as Slovak defenceman Peter Podhradsky.

The core of the team is formed of players that might be less known to non-regular KHL followers and consists mainly of homegrown talent.  People might remember goaltender Andrei Mezin from his heroics with the Belarus national team during the World Championships, but not many expected such a solid performance from defensive pair Andrei Antonov (five assists and +10 after nine games) and Viktor Kostyuchenok (+8 rating).

Up front, veterans like Maxim Spiridonov, Konstantin Glazachev and Andrei Stas take care of business while Canadian Geoff Platt returned for his third year.

Despite not having any KHL poster boy on their roster, Dynamo Minsk can easily compete with any team when it comes to its arena. While all over the country new rinks are being built, the latest masterpiece was completed last winter in the capital city. The state-of-the-art Minsk Arena will welcome the world for the 2014 IIHF World Championship, but it’s already amazed KHL fans.

Late September, the Dynamo Minsk game against two-time Gagarin Cup winner Ak Bars Kazan was attended by 15,531 – a new KHL record. The first five home games this autumn drew an average of 12,000 fans. Such a number hasn’t been reached by any Russian, Soviet or KHL team in the modern era.

Minsk did not disappoint its crowd, upsetting Ak Bars Kazan 5-4 thanks to a Sergei Demagin goal in overtime. The 24-year-old forward, who represented Belarus during the Vancouver Olympics, actually didn’t plan to play for Dynamo Minsk again after he had left for Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk the year before.

“Neftekhimik head coach Vladimir Krikunov put a lot of faith in me and gave me lots of ice time. My plan was to stay with the team and obtain Russian citizenship,” Demagin explains. “But just before the start of the season I was told that my bid failed and they did not want to keep me at the expense of an import spot.”

Upon his return in Minsk, he noticed things have changed for the better. “When I last played here the whole environment around the team was nervous. There were a lot of changes throughout the organization. Players benefit from a stable organization now. Thank God, things have calmed down and improved.”

The hiring of Czech head coach Marek Sykora played a big role. The veteran coach has been in Russia for quite some time. He brought Yevgeni Malkin into professional hockey with Metallurg Magnitogorsk and last season he performed a miracle season with the promoted team, Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, that ended up in the playoffs.

Sykora brought in a strict regime and everyone in the organization knows what is expected. Even the Czech coach did not expect the flying start to the season.

“The pre-season did not give us great results, but we did well once the season started. Nevertheless, I admit I had not expected us to lead the league at one point,” Sykora said. He remains cautious. All too often has he seen teams getting hot and cold. “We should not get carried away by the results and continue to work hard.”

Unfortunately for Sykora, his premonitions proved to be right. Out of the six games that followed, the team had just a single win and dropped to sixth place in the Western Conference. It is such inconsistency that worries the coach.

Although the team is still six points ahead of a non-playoff spot, their early league position has quickly vanished. The gap to the conference leaders grew and already in early October Dynamo Minsk seems to be preparing for another tough battle for a playoff spot.

People in Belarus still hope that third time will be a charm for Dynamo Minsk, but when you are depending on streaks, luck is a tricky line to hold on to.

Notebook:
  • Not satisfied with their current goaltending tandem of Andrei Mezin and Mika Oksa, Dynamo Minsk has signed American Robert Esche to a one-year contract. Esche must first pass a medical test.
  • CSKA Moscow forward Jan Marek became the first import player to reach the 100-goal mark in the Russian league.  The Czech has five goals this year for CSKA, while the others came in a Metallurg Magnitogorsk jersey.
  • SKA St. Petersburg beat the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this week, but the team is still lagging in the KHL. Named as one of the favourites for this year’s title, the team is seventh overall with five losses in 12 games.
  • A second NHL-KHL encounter took place on Wednesday when the Phoenix Coyotes defeated Dinamo Riga, 3-1.
  • Austrian netminder Bernd Brückler is the talk of the town in Nizhny Novgorod.  In the first ten games he has a save percentage of nearly 94.5% and a GAA of 1.59. Norwegian forward Patrick Thoresen is proving that his 71-point season with Salavat Yulayev Ufa last year was no fluke. With eight goals and 14 points in 10 games he ranks second in points behind league leader and teammate Alexander Radulov (21 points).
  • Latvian defenceman Sandis Ozolins is averaging a point per game (one goal and 11 assists). After just 12 games this season, he already has half of the points he earned last year.
  • It took Vityaz Chekhov eleven games, but this week the team celebrated its first win of the season. The winless streak marked a new KHL record.

JOERI LOONEN

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