Kazakhs crush Ukraine in opener
by Andy Potts|06 FEB 2020
There’s a sense that Kazakh hockey is on the rise. The impressive new Barys Arena saw the national team win promotion back to the Elite Pool in the World Championship last April; in the KHL, Barys Nur-Sultan is riding high in the Eastern Conference. Now it’s time for a bid to get back to the Olympics for the first time since 2006.

For several much-loved players, the pressure is on. Nigel Dawes, a naturalised Kazakh with years of service for Barys, openly admits that this could be his last chance to go to the games. Talgat Zhailauov, named captain for this tournament, is another local hero approaching the end of his career. Likewise, Roman Starchenko, one more consistent scorer for Barys, is also in his 30s.

A potential last hurrah for several heroes - at least in national colours on home ice - ensured that Thursday’s opener against Ukraine was greeted with anticipation from an enthusiastic crowd. The team responded to the noise with a blistering start.

The first minute saw Starchenko flash a shot just wide, the second had Ukraine’s goalie Kyrylo Kucher rolling around his crease and the goal horn sounded in the third. It was a little premature: Arkadi Shestakov’s got a long way through Kucher’s pads but didn’t make it over the line.

The reprieve was brief. Within a minute, Alexei Maklyukov’s point shot was tipped in by Dmitri Shevchenko. Next, Valeri Orekhov shaped to shoot before dinking a diagonal pass for Yegor Petukhov to score unmarked at the back door. And when Leonid Metalnikov fired home from the blue line, Kazakhstan had a 3-0 lead inside nine minutes. Kucher went back to the bench but the host was rampant. The speed of Kazakhstan’s passing was causing Ukraine all sorts of problems and too often players were left unguarded near the net. That enabled Curtis Valk to set up Starchenko out in front for 4-0, before Zhailauov had the crowd on its feet when he stuffed home a rebound from a Darren Dietz point shot.

Dawes was encouraged by the way his team got the job done early in the game. "It was really important to get off to a quick start," he said. "We had that quick lead and then the guys could relax a little. It got the crowd into the game as well."
Ukraine vs. Kazakhstan - 2020 Men's Olympic Qualification Group H
UKR KAZ 06 FEB 2020
If there was anything to give the home fans pause for thought as they toasted a fine first period, it might have been a couple of defensive lapses. Although largely outplayed, Ukraine created three very clear chances, scoring one of them. Seconds after the opening goal, the Kazakh defence went walkabout to allow Olexander Kostikov a solo run on Henrik Karlsson’s net before his shot went high. In the 15th minute, Nikita Butsenko’s drop pass just inside the blue line invited Sergi Babynets to head for the danger zone and tuck away a wrister from between the hashmarks as the defence again failed to react. And late in the frame, Dmytro Nimenko stole the puck in the Kazakh zone, only to be denied by a blocker save from Karlsson.

These opportunities were too infrequent to threaten any change in the course of the game – a shot count of 22-4 in the host’s favour underlined that point. However, they may have given encouragement to the rest of the group – a sign that Kazakhstan can be vulnerable if the play can be taken away from its devastating forwards.

Shestakov admitted that the fast start might have affected the team. "We got those three quick goals, we played strong and I think that really helped us," he said. "Maybe after that we lost a bit of concentration and they got some counter attacks on us, but I think we put that right in the second period."

However, head coach Andrei Skabelka was happy with the way his team snuffed out those counter attacks and allowed Ukraine fewer and fewer chances as the game went on. "We played a strong game," he said. "We didn't let them seriously trouble us at the back and we played a lot in their zone.

"In a game like that, there's always a danger of a counter-attack, but we kept it to a minimum"

And those forwards weren't going anywhere. The second period was a procession of chances in front of Mykyta Hordiushin, who performed admirably under intense pressure to repeatedly deny more goals. When he was beaten midway through the frame when a Shevchenko touch took a shot away from his glove, the goalie got a helping hand from the post and reacted smartly to drop on the loose puck. As for defensive frailties, Karlsson did not have a shot to save in the middle frame as Kazakhstan turned up the heat on the hard-working Hordiushin.

His resistance could not last forever, and in the 33rd minute Dietz rifled home number six from just inside the right-hand circle. Not for the first time, Ukraine’s defence contributed to its own downfall with a weak clearance that Shestakov could collect inside the blue line to start the next wave of attack instantly. The next goal saw the two swap roles, with Dietz supplying a blue line to blue line pass for Shestakov to make it 7-1.

Dietz and Shestakov are very much part of Kazakhstan’s future. Forward Shestakov, 24, is in his first season of KHL action with Barys after working his way through the system in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Dietz, born in Medicine Hat, Alberta and briefly an NHLer with the Habs, joined Barys in 2017. The 26-year-old is now a naturalised Kazakh and wears the ‘A’ at this tournament.

With the outcome already decided, the third period saw Kucher return to the Ukrainian net. This time, he stayed in place for rather longer as the pace of the game dropped. Orekhov - another exciting youngster - raised a cheer when he started and finished a move that took play from one end to the other and made it 8-1, Dawes dinged one off the piping and an impromptu recital from a choir of uniformed men behind one of the nets concluded a successful start for the tournament host.

"We carried a lot of the play, we kept creating chances and we had a lot of possession. It was important to get that first win and now we can look forward to the next games and hopefully getting the job done here."
Ukraine vs. Kazakhstan - 2020 Men's Olympic Qualification Group H