Poland snatches dramatic victory
by Andy Potts|09 FEB 2020
Poland pulled off a shock in Nur-Sultan, downing Kazakhstan in Sunday’s Olympic Qualification Group H finale. Moreover, Tomek Valtonen’s team did it the hard way, blowing a 2-0 lead before responding in the third period to win the game and advance to the final qualifying round in August.

Polish goalie John Murray was the star of the show, making 51 saves to deny Kazakhstan a place in the next stage - but he was quick to pay tribute to the hard work of his team-mates.

"The guys played really well in front of me and kept it simple for me," he said. "I was able to do my job and didn’t have to worry about them doing theirs." 

Even when Kazakhstan rallied to tie the game? "I was happily impressed with the character in the locker room. We went up 2-0 and I don’t think the guys quite knew what to do and then they crashed back. But at the start of the third we came out, put one in early and played like a solid team defensively in the third."

In the two previous games, Kazakhstan began at a blistering pace and took the game away from the opposition almost before it had a chance to compete. Here, once again, Andrei Skabelka sent out his team to storm the Polish net – only to hit a roadblock in the form of Murray and that dogged rearguard action.

The Polish goalie, now 32, has one of the more colourful CVs at this championship: born in the USA, his club career took him to Belgrade and Kazakhstan’s Kulager Petropavlovsk before he settled in Poland with Orik Opole then GKS Tychy. Along the way, he acquired Polish citizenship and made his international debut in 2016/17.

This was to be one his busier first periods: the home offence roared into action, moving the puck around at pace and penning the Poles into their zone. But, unlike the previous games, not scoring. Whether it was a Curtis Valk rush all the way to the paint or a shot from Yegor Petukhov that bounced off a Polish skate and off the post to safety, Kazakhstan was close, but not close enough.

"Coming into the game we weren’t quite sure what to expect," Murray added. "I think we kinda knew what we should do and how we should play, but not exactly what was going to come from the other end. I think we handled ourselves. We kept it simple, kept it to the basics. We let everyone do their job and you do yours."

Then, against the run of play, Poland opened the scoring. Not many teams have held the puck in the Kazakh zone for any length of time in this tournament, but after a scrambling save from Henrik Karlsson, the Poles recycled the play and went back to the blue line. Bartosz Cuira’s shot was speculative, but a big deflection off the luckless Alexei Maklyukov took it away from Karlsson and into the net.

The first Kazakh power play intensified the pressure, but Poland held on as Dustin Boyd, Talgat Zhailauov and Arkadi Shestakov all went close. Back at equal strength, Nigel Dawes robbed a defenceman behind the net and fed Boyd in front of the net; once again the piping denied the home team.

However, there were signs that Poland was weathering the storm. Another power play saw an uncharacteristic fan on a Dawes shot, while the defence defended in a tight square, forcing Kazakhstan to rely on long-range efforts from Darren Dietz rather than allowing the host to carve into the danger zone to ask some bigger questions of Murray.
Kazakhstan vs. Poland - 2020 Men's Olympic Qualification Group H
KAZ POL 09 FEB 2020
The second period began with Murray excelling once again, his outstretched glove robbing Shestakov early in the frame. Then he held on when Petukhov got a shooting chance all alone in front of the net.

There were signs of nerves creeping into Kazakhstan’s play – what was once quick was now becoming hurried – and midway through the frame Poland capitalized with a second goal. Oskar Jaskiewicz fired in a point shot and after a big rebound the defence froze to allow Martin Przygodki to put away the chance.

It demanded an instant reaction – and Kazakhstan delivered just 17 seconds later. Valk went behind the net, picked out Boyd and, at last, Murray was beaten at the back door. The same pair combined again five minutes later to tie the scores. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals: Boyd saw one shot saved, another kicked off the line by Jaskiewicz and only the third was stuffed into the net. However, the roar from the home crowd told its own story – this was vital.

Boyd's two goals would not be enough, though. The one time Flames forward was bitterly disappointed after a game that promised so much but ended in painful defeat.

"We had a lot of pressure, a lot of good chances,  a lot of good looks but we have to put more than two goals in the net," he said. "We needed to find a way to get more and we didn’t, and that’s the result we have.

"But you gotta give them credit, they blocked a lot of shots, the goalie made some big saves. We’re not happy right now, that’s for sure."

After losing its hard-won lead, Poland refused to wobble. Instead, it produced the best chance of the closing minutes of the second period when a breakdown on the blue line allowed captain Krystian Dziubinski to race down the ice on his own. Karlsson blocked that, then came sprawling out of his crease stick first to deny Filip Komorski a chance on the follow-up.

And Komorski played a key role in the first minute of the third period as Poland stunned the Kazakhs by retaking the lead. His shot crashed against the inside of Karlsson’s post and the goalie was left helpless as it dropped straight onto Maciej Urbanowicz’s stick in front of a gaping net.

Once again, it was a question of whether Polish endurance could outlast Kazakh flair. The game followed the same pattern as before, with the home side enjoying the bulk of the play and Poland limited to counter-attacks. A Kazakh power play midway through the third saw Dustin Boyd twice fail to connect with straightforward chances, but with both teams tiring, the Polish PK was unable to maintain its shape as effectively as before.

Kazakhstan kept knocking at the door, but as the clock ran down it was finding it harder to generate the kind of opportunities spurned earlier in the game. Even the departure of Karlsson, replaced by a sixth forward with almost two full minutes on the clock, could not change the script; Poland, and Murray, held on for a famous victory.

And as the Polish players danced with delight on the ice, one of the team's newcomers, Noureddine Bettahar was reveling in his first experience of an international tournament.

"In that last time out [the coach] was telling us to stay cool, do our jobs and be proud of it. Hockey is a fun game. It’s my first time here. I think I could play better but it’s a team game, it’s not about individuals and we are really proud of what we’ve done together.

"Hockey is fun, hockey isn’t about pressure, you just go and have fun. It doesn’t matter who scores, who made the assists, it’s just hockey and it should be fun."

Groups Final Olympic Qualification

The group winners of the Olympic Pre-Qualification Round 3 advance to the Final Olympic Qualification (27-30 August 2020) where they will be seeded in the three groups according to the 2019 IIHF Men’s World Ranking:

Group D: Slovakia, Belarus, Austria, Poland. In Slovakia (city TBA).
Group E: Latvia, France, Italy, Hungary. In Riga, Latvia.
Group F: Norway, Denmark, Korea, Slovenia. In Norway (city TBA).

Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, USA, Germany and Switzerland as the top-8 countries as well as host China are already qualified for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

The Women’s Olympic Qualification will be played in the 2020/2021 season. The structure will be determined at the 2020 IIHF Annual Congress in May.
Kazakhstan vs. Poland - 2020 Men's Olympic Qualification Group H