When Belarus takes the ice at the Minsk Arena in tonight’s late game versus reigning champions Sweden, it will be as the underdog team.
But in one area, they will undoubtedly win – fan support.
“The crowd helps us a lot, they push us forward and give us energy when we’re tired,” said Belarus defender Oleg Yevenko. “That helps us get a little advantage over the competition.”
The one statistical category were Belarus is leading the tournament is attendance, averaging more than 14 000 spectators at their games.
“The crowd is like an extra player for us. They seem to be getting louder and louder every game and I’m sure on Thursday it’s going to be like it was against Russia,” said goaltender Kevin Lalande, who has posted an amazing .964 save percentage in four games so far.
They’ll need that advantage as Sweden has the advantage in pretty much every other single statistical category going into the game. Just by looking at the team’s play in special teams, we find the two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum. Sweden’s power play has s a 27.3 % success rate, good for second place in the tournament, after scoring four times against Italy. Belarus has scored on 11.5 % of their opportunities, placing them 14th among the tournament’s 16 teams.
On the penalty kill, Sweden has killed off 92.9 % of the penalties against them, compared to Belarus’s 77.4 %.
For Belarus, whose special teams have struggled, generating enough offense to win will be a challenge. Mikhail Grabovski, the 30-year-old Washington Capital who has four goals and four assists so far in the tournament, leads team offensively but for Belarus to win, they will have to rely on a strong collective team game.
Belarus Head Coach Glen Hanlon says they have scouted the Swedes well.
“They're defending champions, they skate well and they play fast hockey,” explained Hanlon. “We've had scouts over there the whole time and we will come out and play against Sweden like we've played all week. We respect everybody, but we don't fear anybody. We will play as hard as we can.”
For Tre Kronor, Anders Nilsson will get the start in net after taking a rest in Sweden’s last game against Italy. Nilsson has been solid so far, posting a 1.47 goals against average and a .935 save percentage. Tre Kronor will also welcome the return of Joakim Lindstrom, who suffered a pulled groin in the game versus Canada. He has four goals and four assists in six games so far.
A bona fide set-up man, it’s no coincidence that line mates Oscar Moller and Mikael Backlund are leading the Swedes in shots on goal, with 29 and 26, respectively.
Since the classic game of the 2002 Olympics, Sweden and Belarus has faced each other five times in IIHF World Championship and Olympic game competition. Sweden has won all five games, but often the games have been close. At last year’s tournament, Sweden won by a narrow 2-1 margin, as Fredrik Pettersson scored the game-winning goal with less than ten minutes remaining in regulation, assisted by Joel Lundqvist, the captain of this year’s team.
In this night’s battle, the biggest game in which the two teams have met since Salt Lake City, there is no doubt that Sweden is the favourite to win. But it will be close and could come down to a couple of bounces.
“Sweden is a good opponent, but they are no better than us,” said Belarus forward Andrei Stepanov. “It doesn’t really matter who we play at this stage – we just need to go out and play every game. We all need to believe we can win, the players, the teams, the fans.”
Also, Kevin Lalande’s family might have some extra inside information to help the team.
“My mom and my brother went to Sweden’s game so I’ll have to talk to them for a scouting report,” said Lalande. “All we know is that they are a good hockey team, they’ve had a good tournament and we have to be at our best [tonight].”