STOCKHOLM – The best finish by Belarus at the World Championship was a 6th place finish in 2006. Last year, the team avoided relegation by beating Kazakhstan, 3-2, a margin of victory which will likely be needed again in Stockholm.
The team scored a mere 11 goals in seven games, though, a record insufficient against the better teams. Like their other opponents in the lower half of the group, Belarus will have to focus on must-win games to remain in the race for a berth in the quarter-finals until the end.
Stepan Goryachevskikh was on the KHL team of Ukraine’s new entry Donbass Donetsk that also won the IIHF Continental Cup. Dmitri Milchakov is a 27-year-old with ample experience, having first played for his country at the 2002 U18 tournament and making his senior World Championship debut as a third goalie in 2008. He played his first game only last year, though, and had an 0-0-2 record in 2012. 23-year-old Vitali Belinski, who has played for several years for Yunost Minsk in Belarus, might end up as the emergency goalkeeper.
The seven defencemen for Belarus are vastly young and inexperienced. Their totals include only four World Championships, Oleg Goroshko leading the way having played the World Championship twice previously. Pavel Chernaok and Roman Graborenko have been to the big dance once each, while the other four blueliners, all of whom played at home this season, are making their senior debuts: Andrei Filichkin, Ilya Kaznadei, Yaroslav Maslenikov, Ilya Shinkevich. Graborenko is only 20 and played in the AHL in 2012/2013, so his development here can only improve his long-term fortunes as Belarus tries to grow its hockey program.
There is a blend of old and new, experienced and raw rookies, among the forwards this year. In the case of the former, 32-year-old Konstantin Koltsov is appearing in his ninth World Championship after playing for Mytishi this year. Dmitri Meleshko and Alexei Ugarov, both two years younger, are also in number nine, while Alexander Kulikov is in his seventh. In the case of the latter, Artyom Kisly and Vyacheslav Andryushenko are newcomers to the senior level. The most curious addition to the roster is 27-year-old Alexei Yefimenko. He played for Belarus at the 2005 U20 but didn’t appear internationally for eight years until now. The youngest player on the team is 18-year-old Artur Gavrus, who spent 2012-13 in the OHL with Owen Sound after being drafted 180th overall at last year’s NHL draft by New Jersey.
Hired last November to guide Belarus though the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship hosted by his nation, Andrei Skabelka had been coaching in Gomel, but his first international assignment was the Olympic qualification, which ended in disappointment as Belarus failed to qualify for Sochi. As a player, his international career was extensive, but his task with the national team is tremendous.
There is little chance Belarus will qualify for the playoff round, and there is great hope it doesn’t finish last although as next year’s host it cannot be relegated. Belarus has a good enough blend of talent that a spot in the 10-12 range would not be surprising.