In a matchup of two teams that lost their opening games yesterday, it was do-or-die time for Belarus and Austria in their second games of the Men’s Final Olympic Qualifying Tournament, Group D in Bratislava. Belarus did, coming back from a 2-0 deficit after one period to win 5-2. Now, despite how things looked for their first four periods of this tournament, the team still has a chance to finish on top and qualify for the Winter Olympics with some favourable results and a win over Slovakia tomorrow.
“We didn’t panic,” said Belarusian head coach Craig Woodcroft. “It just speaks to the type of team we have and the character we have in the locker room, and the kind of commitment and effort we needed to find a way back into the game.”
Belarus scored all five goals in the second period, led by two from captain Yegor Sharangovich and two points each from Shane Prince, Andrei Stas and Nikita Komarov.
“Our first period wasn’t good but in the second we managed to get back to playing as a team and, with some hard work, we managed to score five goals,” said Sharangovich.
The Austrians got off to a fast start this game, setting the Belarusians back on their heels and drawing a couple of penalties in the first seven minutes. They cashed in on the second one at 8:35 with Raphael Herburger putting a nice tip on Lukas Haudum’s shot from the top of the slot.
In the second half of the opening period it was time for Belarus to get some time in the attacking zone thanks to a couple of power plays the other way and managed some shots but not many great chances. Just after killing off the second penalty, however, The Austrians rushed down the ice and made it 2-0, with Dominik Zwerger dropping to Marco Rossi, who in turn found Brian Lebler streaking to the net.
After their lacklustre first period, the Belarusians were dominant in the second, outshooting Austria just 10-4 but making the shots count by scoring on five of them.
“I’m not sure what happened,” said Austrian head coach Roger Bader. “Normally, if you allow 10 shots in a period, that’s pretty good and even if you allow three goals, that’s more than normal. But for some reason, five of them went in and, of course, Belarus has good shooters and they fed from this and gained momentum.”
“We just made a few lineup changes and tried to scratch and claw our way back into it,” said Woodcroft. “Yesterday, we had close to 50 shots on net but we just didn’t find a way to solve the goaltender. I think we felt a huge weight off of our shoulders as a team once we got that first goal on the power play in the second period. It changed us and allowed us to play our game.”
Belarus went to the power play 39 seconds into the middle frame and was on the scoreboard just four seconds later. Nicholas Bailen won the draw back to Stas, who sent a low snap shot through the crowd that beat Starkbaum. They kept coming and the game was tied just over five minutes later, with Stas passing out from the corner to Sharangovich, who backhanded it in.
“We were definitely in a tough spot after the tough game we had yesterday and the first period here today,” said Prince. “Yegor and his line dug deep and picked our team up. They came out in the second period and scored some huge goals and inspired the team.”
“I think my primary role as captain of this team is to lead on the ice,” said the 23-year-old Sharangovich, who is about to enter his second NHL season with the New Jersey Devils. “In the dressing room we have a lot of experienced guys like (alternate captains) Andrei Stas and Nick Bailen, who inspire our team with words.”
Just past the game’s midpoint, Belarus had its first lead of the tournament. Sharangovich’s second of the game came off the rush, when he used a defenceman as a screen and used his left-hand shot from the right wing to beat Starkbaum top corner. The fourth goal came on the power play on a Prince one-timer from the high slot. Finally, Geoff Platt made it 5-2 with 22 seconds to go in the period, following spadework by Prince and Francis Pare behind the net.
“The fifth goal right at the end of the period was particularly devastating,” said Bader. “It really made it difficult for us to come back. It’s hard to really say what happened. I’ll have to watch the video.”
After yielding five goals on just 20 shots, Starkbaum was pulled from the Austrian goal in favour of David Kickert to start the third period. As he was yesterday against Slovakia, Kickert was solid, stopping all eight shots he faced. But it wasn’t more goals the Belarusians needed. It was defence, and they were able to ride this game home.
The loss eliminates Austria from qualifying. Belarus might have a chance by winning the tournament’s last game against Slovakia, but that will depend on what happens in the two games in between featuring Poland, the team that beat them yesterday.
“That was a must-win, so we feel good and to come back like that is an even better feeling, to overcome adversity,” said Prince. “Hopefully, we can bring that into tomorrow’s game and other things work out for us that it’ll come down to that game.”