QUEBEC CITY – Two years ago, Belarus finished sixth, and coach Glen Hanlon was hailed as a national hero in the country. Hanlon went on to the NHL, and Belarus chose Curt Fraser as the new head coach. Belarus beat Austria in their most important game of the tournament, made it to the qualification round, but then won no more, and was sent packing.
Maybe somewhat surprisingly, Fraser wasn’t, and he takes the team to his second World Championship - together with Glen Hanlon who’s back behind the Belarus bench, as an assistant, after being fired from the Washington Capitals early in the season.
This year, again, Belarus plays its most important game already in the first week of the tournament, when it faces France in the last game of the preliminary round. A win is a must. After that, another win might be enough to take it to the playoffs phase. Even that might be enough for Glen Hanlon to get a statue in Minsk.
Belarus is also trying to attract the World Championships to Minsk in 2014, and are building a nice rink to accommodate that.
Dmitri Karpikov (Keramin Minsk) posted a respectable .932 save percentage in the Belarusian league even if he, at 173 cm, looks nothing like the modern goalies. Whatever he lacks in size, he compensates with the size of his heart, his acrobatic skills, and his experience. The 34-year-old veteran is likely to get the nod in the beginning, but it he falters, younger (28) and taller (188 cm) backup Vitali Koval can bring another side to the Belarus game.
Every defense needs an anchor, a rock, a foundation. Somebody who can show the way, keep it cool when needed and who won’t be fazed by anything. Belarus has its rock in Alexander Makritsky. The 37-year-old has had quite a ride from the Group C World Championships in 1994 and 1995 to Group B World Championships in 1996 and 1997 to the highest level of international competition five times. By his side, he has another 37-year-old, Oleg Leontiev, who has a good season with HC Minsk behind him.
Keep your eye on Sergei Kolosov as well, the 21-year-old is the Detroit Red Wings’ fifth-round pick in 2004, and has played two season in North America.
Sure, hockey is a team sport, but we all know what a difference just one player can make. Belarus hopes to add two excellent players on its roster - hopefully in time for their key game against Switzerland on May 5. All it takes is for the Phildelphia Flyers to blank the Montreal Canadiens, and the Kostitsyn brothers are on their way to Quebec City.
Andrei Kostitsyn, 23, scored 26 goals (and 53 points) for the Canadiens in the regular season, his two years younger brother Sergei 27 points, both in the top eight in scoring among the Canadiens forwards. They would give Belarus a real offensive threat.
Meanwhile, Fraser has several top forwards from the Russian Super League. Alexei Kalyuzhny, 30, scored 56 points in 56 games for Avangard Omsk, and Oleg Antonenko, 36, 17 goals, 31 points in 44 games for HK MVD Moscow Region. He, too, has been one of they key players on Belarus’s journey to the top division.
Curt Fraser is used to international hockey. As a player, he represented Canada in the World Junior Championship in 1978, and USA in the 1987 Canada Cup. Fraser is back, Hanlon is back, which sends positive signals to the team, and that’s important for Belarus who has to get a great start for the tournament. They can’t afford to wait for additional players or that the game clicks in the second half of the tournament. If it doesn’t, the country’s roller-coaster ride in the World Championship continues.
If the team plays smart, and with a fury, their chances are in upsetting the better teams in their preliminary group in the beginning. A win in the opening game against Sweden would do wonders. If not, they face a must-win in their last game of the preliminary group, against France. If things go as expected, Belarus should be fighting for a spot in the quarterfinal.