The first game of the Men’s Final Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Group D in Bratislava brought the first surprise, as goaltender John Murray – or “Jaszek Murasz” as he’s nicknamed in Poland – stopped all 46 shots he faced and got solid help from the team in front of him, as Poland defeated favoured Belarus 1-0.
“This was a huge step,” said Murray. “I know it’s asking a lot, but we’re now two wins away from qualifying for the Olympics.”
“It’s quite simple. Without the play of John Murray today, we don’t win this game,” said Polish head coach Robert Kalaber.
“I thought our team did a lot of things really well tonight except find an answer to scoring goals,” said Belarusian head coach Craig Woodcroft. “Ultimately, that was the difference in the hockey game.”
The only goal of the game came against flow of play with just 5:01 to play courtesy Filip Komorski. It was the only one of 18 Polish shots that Danny Taylor didn’t stop.
“This win is very important because we want to show that we can beat these teams,” said Komorski, who referenced his team’s 3-2 win over Kazakhstan in Round 3 of Olympic Pre-Qualifying last year. “We wanted to show that was no fluke.”
Belarus held a territorial edge during the opening period and outshot Poland 14-7, although few of the shots posed a big problem for Murray. Belarus got the only power play of the opening period but that’s when the Poles got their best chance, as Grzegorz Pasiut chased down a clearing attempt in the Belarusian zone and fired a tricky shot that nearly snuck under the arm of Taylor.
Urged on by a decent contingent of fans, Poland continued to play solid defensively through the second period and got a pair of power plays that generated some momentum. But after killing them off, Belarus started to get more dangerous chances. With under six minutes to play, Andrei Stas nearly connected with Nitkita Komarov streaking to the net but he chipped it just wide. Less than a minute after that, there was a goalmouth scramble after a faceoff in the Polish zone that had Murray swimming in his crease looking for the loose puck, but he finally covered it while on his back. In the dying seconds of the middle frame, Stas found Komarov in front again, and his quick wrister just missed the top corner.
“First off, I think their goalie had a hell of a game,” said Woodcroft. “At times we seemed a little rushed or frustrated, and as the game wore on, we were a little too anxious to take a shot or were rushing a play, and that kinda wore on our players as the game wore on.”
Belarus fired 20 shots on Murray in the third period and, for the first half of the period, the play was almost exclusively in the Polish end of the rink with the Poles doing all they could to keep the Belarusians to the perimeter, but seemingly becoming more confident with each passing minute. Maybe a bit too confident at times.
With 7:07 to play came perhaps Belarus’ best chance of the night, as an errant clearing attempt wound up on the stick of Komarov in front, who tried to go low this time on Murray but was robbed by the left pad. Murray then covered the rebound before anybody could get to it.
“We’re prepared to play under pressure against Belarus, Slovakia and Austria but today we made some mistakes,” said Kalaber. “But overall, I’m very happy with our play and with this result.”
Then it finally happened. With just over five minutes to play, Alan Lyszczarczyk carried the puck into the Belarusian zone and dished off to Komorski, who let go a low wrister that Taylor got a piece of but not enough, and the puck just dribbled across the goal line as the Polish fans in attendance, already standing and shouting, went berzerk.
“I’m very happy that I scored this goal because it was very big,” said Komorski. “It was a very tough game but tactically we played very well, playing defence first and it resulted in this moment.”
Less than a minute later, Belarus went to the power play looking to equalize, with the best chance coming off a one-timer from Francis Pare that Murray got a glove on.
The final faceoff came with just 2.9 seconds left with the Polish team and fans ready to celebrate, and they both exploded when it happened, and then enthusiastically sang their national anthem as it played.