Host faces do-or-die showdown
by Andy Potts|08 FEB 2020
Kazakhstan and Poland will meet first time since the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.
photo: Laszlo Mudra
The White Eagle of Poland takes on the Steppe Eagle of Kazakhstan for a place in the next stage of Olympic qualification on Sunday. On paper, the host nation looks to be the favourite: later this season, Kazakhstan will play in the top division of the World Championship once again, while Poland looks to win promotion from Division IB. Moreover, in 20 head-to-head meetings, Kazakhstan has 18 victories, most recently a 6-1 victory in Budapest in 2018.

However, it should not be taken as a foregone conclusion. In 2017, it took overtime to snap a 0-0 tie in Kyiv, with Kevin Dallman finally breaking the deadlock. Two years earlier, Poland again pushed Kazakhstan all the way before succumbing 2-3 to a late goal from Roman Starchenko as the Kazakhs earned promotion to the top flight.

After two convincing victories over the Netherlands and Ukraine, Kazakhstan is full of confidence ahead of Sunday’s showdown. And with justification: while the other three teams are drawn from a host of teams in their respective countries and beyond, the Kazakhs are almost exclusively selected from the Barys Nur-Sultan system.

That familiarity makes a big difference, according to defenceman Darren Dietz. “We’re used to each other, we’re pretty comfortable with each other and that’s a real advantage when it comes to game plan and tactics,” he said after the win over Ukraine. “We haven’t watched a lot of the other teams here yet. To be honest, we don’t really know anything about these opponents so it’s really just about playing our game.

“We’re concentrating on our strengths and when we stick to our plan, we’ve shown so far that we can have success.

“It doesn’t matter who we play against or at what level, we want to make sure we’re doing our game plan and we want to win or lose by that plan.”

Poland, meanwhile, knows that it is the outsider against a team stacked with KHL talent and enjoying home advantage in Nur-Sultan. However, there is a belief that – with everyone at his best – the team can spring a surprise.

“I think physically we can match Kazakhstan,” said Szymon Marzec, a goalscorer against Ukraine in the previous game. “But the mental preparation is the most important. We have to be focussed from the start: if we play like we did against Ukraine in the first period, it will be like the game between Kazakhstan and Ukraine – 3-0 after five minutes and the game is over.

“The longer we can keep them out, the better. That will give us faith in our abilities and a chance to finish the game well.”

Team captain Krystian Dziubinski is also aware of the need to be ready as soon as the puck is dropped.

“I can’t wait for the game,” he said. “We need to rest after the Ukraine game and be ready to start on time on Sunday.

“We know they have a lot of guys from the KHL, we know they are powerful on offence, but we also know our strengths. I think we can surprise them.”

Kazakhstan vs Poland takes place at the Barys Arena in Nur-Sultan on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 1700 local time (midday CET). A stream of the game is available on the IIHF website. Earlier on Sunday, Ukraine plays the Netherlands in a battle to escape last place in the four-team group.