Friday’s opening games at the Patinoire de Kockelscheuer on Friday saw Kyrgyzstan battle hard for two periods against the United Arab Emirates before pulling away in the third to win 9-4. Later in the day, top-seeded Luxembourg roared to a 10-1 victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina, with forward Vlad Shelest potting a hat trick the day after his 17th birthday.
That set up a Saturday night showdown between Kyrgyzstan and Luxembourg with both nations knowing victory in regulation would effectively seal a place in the next phase. A Kyrgyz win would settle the issue on the night, although success for the host would still leave a theoretical chance for the UAE if results went its way on Sunday.
There was a sense of anticipation at the Kockelscheuer rink ahead of the game. Luxembourg had neither played nor hosted an Olympic Qualification tournament before and the event had attracted near-capacity crowds to the 1,000-seater rink, with some fans even traveling from neighbouring Germany to witness the action. Defenceman Michael Cannon was impressed with the home support, saying: “It feels like you’re on rocket fuel!”
Despite the lively home support, though, Kyrgyzstan settled to its task quicker and had the better of the play in the first period. Experienced home goalie Philippe Lepage needed to perform strongly, stopping 12 shots at his goal. Then, late in the frame, Shelest, star of the opening night win over the Bosnians, set up Marcus Eriksson for a wrister from the top of the circle to open the scoring.
Everything changed in the second period. Kyrgyzstan scored four unanswered goals, led by Vladimir Nosov. The 22-year-old forward scored twice and moved onto 7 (4+3) points for the tournament. Like most of the Kyrgyz roster, he plays for the Dordoi club in the national championship. Clubmate Artem Gorodets picked up a goal and an assist, with Anton Kudashev of the Kyrgyz Temir Johly club also finding the net.
Down but not out, Luxembourg battled back hard in the third. After the host had killed a penalty early in the frame, Sacha Backes forced a turnover in the corner and popped the puck to the doorstep for the unmarked Mirko Mosr to make it 2-4 with 11 minutes to play. The chances kept coming: Shelest made an intercept that saw goalie Aleksandr Petrov make a smart stop to deny Colm Cannon, then an odd-man rush saw Backes thwarted by the goalie. The home crowd started to believe again, and when Cannon saw his wrist shot squeeze through Petrov and dribble into the net the fightback was very much on.
But Kyrgyzstan was not about to crumble just minutes before winning the group. Pavel Sazonov’s team kept its shape and closed out the game, adding an empty net goal from Vladimir Tonkikh to seal the win. Then on Sunday the team could celebrate in some style, racking up a 15-3 victory over Bosnia to finish with three wins from three.
Nosov and Tonkikh were among the tournament’s leading scorers. Both potted five goals apiece, while Nosov’s six assists put him on top of the scoring chart ahead of his captain. UAE’s Artur Zainutdinov, another Russian-born player in the tournament, was the leading goalscorer in the tournament with six, and finished level with Tonkikh on eight point.
Kyrgyzstan’s progress is a big boost for a country that only joined the IIHF as recently as 2011. Prior to that, it had competed successfully in the Asian Winter Games, winning the second-tier competition there in 2011, shortly before it was accepted into the IIHF. In 2014, Bishkek hosted the IIHF Ice Hockey Challenge Cup of Asia Division I and Kyrgyzstan reached the final only to lose to Macau, the country’s first hockey defeat in the modern era. The team also performed strongly at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification in Kuwait but saw four of its five wins annulled due to a player eligibility issues before winning the last game.
There’s a strong Russian accent to the team. Many of the players have Russian heritage and chants of ‘Shaibu’ and ‘Molodtsy’ were often heard among the small group of traveling supporters at the arena. Head coach Sazonov was born in Udmurtia, began his playing career at Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and spent much of his time on the ice in Russia’s lower divisions. He also played extensively in Kazakhstan and represented Kyrgyzstan in the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
The UAE took second place after a hard-fought 5-4 victory over Luxembourg in the final action of the weekend. Two goals apiece for Colm Cannon and Sacha Backes were not enough to see the host nation finish with a win. The Emirates opened an early 2-0 lead, but Luxembourg hit back to lead 3-2 and 4-3 in the second period. Midway through the third, though, Nils Remess got the game-winner for UAE.
For tournament host Luxembourg, failure to qualify was a disappointment. The country was the top seed as it entered the Olympic cycle for the first time but could not convert that into top spot in the group. However, there are still many positives for the Lions as they look ahead to World Championship Division III action later this season to be hosted at the same arena. The emergence of 17-year-old Shelest as a dangerous forward was merely the most obvious reward for the federation’s recent emphasis on promoting young players; apart from him, Demir Mededovic (19), Markus Beran (17) and 16-year-old David Church all gained valuable experience.
Michael Cannon added: “It’s a learning curve and experiencing that the curve is going in the right direction is a powerful feeling on top of everything else.”
For head coach Petr Fical, who played on Germany’s Olympic roster in Torino in 2006, there were still some positives despite the disappointment of failing to advance. “We showed the nice character that we’ve developed in this team. We’re working hard every day and [in the game against Kyrgyzstan] the spirit was there. We almost tied it, or even won the game at the end.
“But we couldn’t find a way into the game until the last 20 minutes and that was crucial. They played well, give them some credit, but we made too many mistakes and we have to be smarter to get wins against good teams.”