HELSINKI – First Sunday of the tournament, high noon. Against France. That’s the key game for Kazakhstan who returns to the top division after a one-year hiatus.
Since the last-place team – in each group – in the preliminary round will get relegated from the top division, it’s likely the game against France, which will be the one that matters the most. The winner of that game, the second of the tournament for both teams, will have less pressure to grab points from the bigger hockey nations, such as Canada or Finland.
There are pros and cons to all this, as far as Kazakhstan is concerned. The upside is that the key game comes early in the tournament, which is probably good for the team that has 16 players playing together in their club team, Barys Astana, in the Russian KHL.
Should they lose that game to France, they still have five games to try and get the necessary points to keep them afloat.
Then again, losing a key game early in the tournament may put too much pressure on the players.
Unlike some of his colleagues, head coach Andrei Shayanov doesn’t have a big pool of goaltenders to choose from, but at the same time, the ones he’s got on the team have been good for a while.
Therein lies a problem of the future, but in Helsinki, the goalies that will likely see most of the pucks are two 30-something Vitalis: Kolesnik and Yeremeyev.
In last year’s World Championship Division I it was the 36-year-old Yeremeyev, who played four of the five games in the tournament, and played well. He posted the lowest GAA of the tournament, 1.49, and a respectable 92.5 save percentage.
This season the former NHLer – he played four games with the New York Rangers in 2000-01 – played 32 games for Barys Astana in the KHL and turned away 92.5 percent of the shots he faced, tied with Finland’s Karri Rämö.
Vitali Kolesnik, 32, played 20 games with Salavat Yulayev Ufa, and posted a 3.13 GAA. Alexei Ivanov – he’ll turn 24 on the first day of the tournament – played in the Kazakh league, and is untested at this level.
Half of Kazakhstan’s defencemen play together on Barys Astana, so communication or sticking to the game plan shouldn’t be a problem. Vitali Novopashin played second most on the Astana team in the KHL, averaging almost 23 minutes a game, and over 21 minutes a game in the playoffs, so you can be sure to see the 33-year-old stay-at-home defenceman on the ice in critical situations.
In last year’s World Championship when Kazakhstan earned promotion, it was Vityaz Chekhov’s Alexei Troshinski, who provided most offensive support with his three points in five games. This season in the KHL, he led his team’s defencemen in scoring, even if it was just ten points in 49 games. The 38-year-old veteran who has seen Kazakhstan’s journey from the C Pool in 1993 to this year’s tournament in Helsinki, was also one of two regular defencemen on his team to not be a minus player.
Roman Starchenko was the leading Kazakh scorer on the Barys Astana team in the KHL this season. That’s important because he’s one of ten Barys Astana forwards on the team. Last year, in the World Championship Division I he scored 2+2=4 points in five games, tied for fifth on the team, behind four five-point players: Barys Astana teammates Talgat Zhailauov, Andrei Gavrilin, and Fyodor Polishuk, and Dmitri Dudarev from Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk. All five are on the team this year as well.
Of course, instead of meeting Estonia, Lithuania, and Great Britain, Kazakhstan will now face Canada, Finland, the U.S., and scoring chances will be harder to come by. There’s individual skill on the team, but to snatch points, the forwards need to take their game up a notch.
The new coach is not just like the old coach, it is the old coach. Andrei Shayanov is back behind the Kazakhstan bench, but unlike last year, in Division I, this time he’s the head coach, just like in the 2010 tournament in Mannheim, and in the 2009 tournament in which Kazakhstan earned the promotion as well.
Shayanov was relieved of his duties in the summer of 2010, but he took over the national team and the KHL team in October when Andrei Khomutov, a legendary Soviet forward who was the former head coach of Kazakhstan and Barys Astana, was fired.
Kazakhstan enters the tournament as something of a dark horse, trying to hold onto its spot in the top division. Should they get a good start, and find a red-hot goalie, they might mean trouble for even the big nations. They have the skills to do it.