Two goals from Liam Kirk led Britain to its first victory in this year’s World Championship – and the country’s first in regulation time at this level since 1962. Kirk’s double helped to down Belarus and moved the forward level with Denmark’s Nicklas Jensen in the goalscoring chart.
Belarus battled hard to come back from 1-4 midway through the third period but, as in the opening game against Slovakia, the Bison came up short as GB took a 4-3 verdict. Ben Bowns in the British net faced 22 shots in that final frame, but his team got the job done to end a 59-year wait since that last win in regulation, a 7-5 verdict against Finland on 9 March 1962.
"It feels fantastic!" said Ben Davies, scorer of Britain's second goal. "We are all buying in, we were doing what we needed to get the win here.
"They were throwing everything at us towards the end, they were getting some bounces in front of the net and we were just trying to get in front of everything and help Bownsy. He stood on his head as always, and it was just a superb effort up and down the line-up."
For Belarus, though, the author of surprise results earlier in the tournament, this was a bitter disappointment in a game Mikhail Makharov's team was expected to win.
"For two periods we played badly, we lacked discipline and we lost players," admitted Belarus forward Vladislav Koloda. "Our coaches warned us that Britain plays fast and we should expect a good game, but we allowed too many soft goals and we only started playing in the third period when we were behind.
"If we had played the way our coaches asked us from the start, I think it would have been a very different result."
The early exchanges quickly fell into a familiar pattern, with Britain absorbing pressure and relying on defensive discipline to stay in touch with Belarus. There were some anxious moments: Francis Pare rattled the crossbar, Alexei Protas went on the wraparound and almost bounced the puck home off a British skate at the far post.
That all changed when GB got the game’s first power play. This time, there was far more attacking intent from the Brits and twice Danny Taylor – the British-born goalie for Belarus – had to react smartly to clean up rebounds after howitzers from Ben O’Connor. The momentum had shifted, and once under pressure Belarus started to look nervous. An error by Geoff Platt in centre ice presented Liam Kirk with the puck and he advanced on the net to score his third goal of this tournament with 6:22 left to play in the first period.
"[Liam's] been excellent," said fellow forward Matthew Myers. "His game has improved massively over maybe the last three years. he's not played a lot of hockey over the last 18 months going into the Elite Series, but he played great and he’s carried that over into the World Championship at a higher level.
"It’s great to see him skate the way he can, making plays and ultimately finishing them off around the net. All the boys are pumped for him."
Kirk soon had another chance, pouncing on a misplaced pass in the GB end and storming down the ice only to see his attempted feed for Robert Dowd deflect off Stepan Falkovski and fly into Taylor’s chest.
But Belarus sharpened up their game to finish the first strongly, with Protas to the fore. The big Capitals’ prospect – 198 cm, 97 kg – was both a physical presence and a creative force around Ben Bowns’ net but Britain held on to take its lead to the first intermission.
The middle frame started slowly, but exploded into life at the midway point. Belarus got its first power play of the game and, just as Myers was returning to the ice, tied the game when Vladislav Kodola followed up the rebound from his own shot to beat Bowns.
"It felt good to score, especially at a World Championship," Kodola said of his first goal in competitive international action. "But it's sad that we lost. It spoiled the moment."
For a moment, Great Britain wobbled. But then an inspirational piece of play from Ben Lake, who executed a slick toe drag to evade the sliding Kristian Khenkel and test Taylor from close range, re-energised the team.
Soon afterwards Britain put the puck in the net again, with O’Connor tucking away a rebound after Taylor failed to gather a routine effort. However, a refereeing error – immediately admitted by the official in question – saw the goal ruled out; in expectation of Taylor holding the puck, the whistle went before the play broke for Britain to score.
There was visible frustration on the British bench, but the team channelled that anger into a dominant display as the period came to an end. Ben Davies, the hero of Kosice, made it 2-1 despite being fouled by Nikita Komarov in the slot; as he fell, he fired home a feed from Myers behind the net to leave Falkovich embarrassed by the ease with which his lost possession.
For Myers, this was a fine team goal. "I think if you look at the replay, a lot of the work was done by Jonathan Phillips," Myers said. "He puts a lot of pressure on the first d-man and the second d-man’s not watching the play and I snuck up behind him and managed to do a little stick lift and Ben got himself in a good spot out front to him and it wasn’t a great pass, it was in his feet, but he made a good play to get it to his stick and put it past the goaltender. It was a nice goal from the whole line, to be honest."
Next O’Connor took advantage of some static Belarusian defence to find Kirk all alone between the hash marks and Britain’s leading scorer potted his second of the game and fourth of the tournament to make it 3-1 at the second break.
Kirk also has a defensive side to his game and demonstrated that early in the third when he snuffed out a chance for Platt in front of the net, then Paul Swindlehurst made a big block to deny Platt once again.
Then Belarus hit the self-destruct button. A penalty on Jonathan Phillips gave Mikhail Zakharov's team a power play, but within 30 seconds sloppy Belarusian play allowed a two-on-one counter attack that ended with a tripping call for Nick Bailen. Then, playing four-on-four, Khenkel fired an aimless pass into centre ice and Mike Hammond collected the puck and returned it with interest, firing over Taylor's glove to make it 4-1.
That's Hammond's second of this tournament and his sixth in World Championship play for GB, moving into the top 10 goalscorers for his country at this level.
It demanded an instant response from the Bison, and they produced it. Kodola intercepted a Dallas Ehrhardt pass behind the net and quick sticks ripped the British defence open as Francis Pare gave Platt an empty net to score into. With 8:41 to play, it was a two-goal game once more.
And, after Belarus killed a penalty, it hauled it back to 3-4 when the forwards pressed hard in British territory and got their reward when Shane Prince forced it home from close range. With 2:17 to play, Britain's grip on a memorable victory suddenly looked perilous. Belarus tightened the screws: Bowns made a pad save to deny Falkovski's slap shot, then clung on to Yegor Sharangovich's wrister to give GB another evening to remember.
The victory moves Britain to fifth place in Group A ahead of tomorrow's encounter with Sweden. Belarus drops to sixth, level on four points with today's opponent. The next game, against fourth-placed Denmark on Friday, could be crucial to Belarusian hopes of making the knock-out rounds.
"It's good that we have a rest day," said defenceman Ilya Solovyov. "We need to get over this game, emotionally, and start working on the next one. I know that everyone will be thinking we have thrown [a place in the quarter-final] away, but we lost one game. It's not a disaster. We still have three to play, and we still have time to get it right."