QUEBEC CITY – Belarus and France are both staying in Quebec City, but they’re on different journeys after the Belarusians sent their foes to the Relegation Round with a 3-1 win on Wednesday at the Colisée. Alexei Ugarov scored the winner midway through the second period.
In the new millennium, France has failed to stay up both times (2000, 2004) it’s faced relegation play. Its quest to break the trend starts Friday versus Italy, while Belarus will battle neighbouring Russia that day.
The Belarusians have now cracked the Top 12 for the fourth consecutive year. The last time they played (and lost out) in the Relegation Round was 2003.
“I don’t think there are any easy games here, unless you score five goals in the first period,” said captain Ruslan Salei. “Certainly we didn’t do that for ourselves. They kept it close all game long.”
Alexei Kaluzhny and Andrei Kostitsyn also scored for Belarus. Olivier Coqueux replied for the French.
“We’re disappointed about this game,” said Francois Rozenthal. “But that’s sport. When you’re among the world’s best nations, you learn. The rhythm is much higher at this level than in our clubs in France. Every day is different. We’ll just get back to work on Friday.”
The game unfolded at a cautious pace, with both teams needing the win to move on.
The Belarusians’ puck possession and ability to keep their opponents on the perimeter dominated the first period. France didn’t register a shot on goal for nearly 14 minutes.
At 12:57, Kaluzhny slid a shot from the sideboards that slipped through Cristobal Huet’s pads for a 1-0 Belarus lead. The Kostitsyn brothers drew assists on the play, to the delight of Montreal Canadiens fans.
But that didn’t spell immediate doom for the French. They tied it up on a lucky shorthanded goal by Olivier Coqueux with seven seconds left in the period, as he backhanded the puck from behind the goal line and put it in off the back of Vitali Koval’s left leg. The Belarusian goalie looked almost as surprised as when Steve Smith pulled a similar stunt, scoring an own goal on Edmonton teammate Grant Fuhr during the 1986 Smythe Division final versus Calgary.
Tension increased as the score remained 1-1 into the second period. Koval foiled Sebastien Bordeleau on a wraparound attempt, and Sergei Kostitsyn came close with a dazzling rush, forcing Huet to make the second save on Konstantin Koltsov.
But at 27:48, Belarus regained the lead when Alexei Ugarov smartly tipped Oleg Leontiev’s shot through Huet’s legs.
Huet battled to keep his team in the game in the final period. More than once the NHL veteran stretched out to foil Sergei Kostitsyn on a madcap dash to the net. The Belarusian pressure increased during a power play after Simon Lacroix hauled down Ugarov on a near breakaway. Huet scrambled left and right, barely keeping the puck out on several chances at the goal line.
“Their goalie is a top goalie in the NHL, and we knew it would be tough to score on a guy like that,” said Salei. “When we had our chances, it seemed like we kept missing by a couple of inches all the time.”
But it did not matter, since the French failed to get the equalizer. With under a minute left, Huet tried to get out of the net for an extra attacker, but it backfired, as he was way out of position when Andrei Kostitsyn got the puck in the neutral zone and raced in to slide it into the deserted cage.
Belarus outshot France 29-20.
Looking ahead to Russia, Salei said: “They’ve got all superstars from the NHL, and it’s going to be a tough game. They’re fast, they’re tough, they can score, they can pretty much do anything. We’ve just got to try to stop them.”
France’s pop-gun offence has been a major detriment thus far, as the team’s total output of two goals is tied for worst with Slovenia. Defensively, only the Italians (with 20 goals against) are worse.
An enthusiastic corps of French supporters sang and clapped throughout the game behind Huet’s net. But they still haven’t heard the Marseillaise played after a game, and that needs to happen soon for Les Bleus.