Heading into the final day of play in Group D of the Men’s Final Olympic Qualification Tournament, there are two teams still in the race and they face off against each other, but the playing field isn’t level. The Slovaks, playing on their home ice, need just one point to punch their ticket to Beijing. Belarus, on the other hand, will need to win in regulation time.
How the teams got here
The Slovaks are in the driver’s seat after taking the maximum six points from their first two games. While they had a decisive edge in play in both games, they beat Austria 2-1 and then only led Poland 1-0 after one period before finally starting to produce in period two and eventually winning 5-1.
Head coach Craig Ramsay wasn’t pleased by his team’s execution over its first four periods of play, trying to make fancy plays rather than keeping it simple.
“You can never expect it to be an easy game,” he said after beating Poland. “If you do, it will always be a long, challenging night. If you don't score goals easily, you get tougher right away. In the end, we were able to score a few goals today.”
Belarus had a similar problem in its first game against Poland and, despite dominating 46-18 in shots, lost 1-0. Then, after falling behind 2-0 in the first period against Austria, the Belarusians were in a desperate situation and scored five second period goals to win 5-2.
“I didn’t shout at the guys. I just calmly told them that they represented their country and they had to represent it correctly,” Belarusian head coach Craig Woodcroft said about the first intermission of the Austria game. “I also said that they are all very strong players, they are also strong in heart, and it is that heart that must lead us now. There is no room for excuses, everyone is well prepared and obliged to take on the role of leader.”
Slovakia has the only three players in the tournament with more than two points – defenceman Peter Ceresnak with four and forward Libor Hudacek and defenceman Martin Gernat with three each. After being held off the scoresheet entirely their first four periods, Belarus got two points each from captain Yegor Sharangovich, Shane Prince, Andrei Stas and Nikita Komarov.
Bronislav Konrad of Slovakia and Danny Taylor of Belarus have played both games for their teams so far and are expected to get the call in goal again on Sunday.
The Belarusians look to return to the Olympics for the first time since 2010, which was their third appearance. The Slovaks are looking to avoid missing for the first time since first qualifying in 1994.
Both teams’ best-ever Olympic finish was fourth place – Belarus in 2002 in Salt Lake City following a huge upset over Sweden in the quarter-finals and Slovakia in 2010 in Vancouver after a significantly lesser upset over Sweden in the quarter-finals.
The two teams have largely the same rosters as the ones who faced off on the opening day of the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship at the Olympic Sports Centre in Riga, Latvia. In that game, Kristian Pospisil and Peter Cehlarik each scored twice in a 5-2 Slovakia victory. With three points in the game, it was the start of a big tournament for Cehlarik, who finished with 11 points and was named the tournament’s Best Forward.
Konrad stopped 32 of 34 shots in the Slovak goal, while Taylor entered the game in relief for Belarus with his team down 3-0 and stopped 25 of 26.
“We were two teams,” Ramsay said after that game in a familiar refrain. “One that was aggressive at the start. We chased and we attacked and our power play was really effective. Then when we started to get fancy, we made some funny plays and gave up a lot of chances but fortunately our goaltender was really good.”
Sharangovich, the newly appointed Belarus captain fresh off his rookie campaign with the New Jersey Devils, scored his team’s second goal on a breakaway but he could have had a couple more. In the second period, an apparent goal he scored was waved off due to goalie interference and in the last minute, with his team down a pair, he was given a penalty shot but was denied by Konrad.
On being captain of a team that’s mostly older than him, Sharangovich recently said: “I feel like I’m more of a captain on the ice, but more experienced guys like (alternate captains) Stas and (Nick) Bailen are responsible for the atmosphere in the locker room. They have the words that can motivate the team. In the locker room, I’m pretty quiet.”
The two teams went in very different directions that tournament, with Slovakia qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time since 2013 while Belarus finished last in Group A with four points.
That was just three months ago. Now, Slovakia looks to continue trending upward while Belarus aims to get back on track.
The game at hand
While Slovakia is the definite favourite to qualify, due to both the skill level of the teams and the fact that they only need to get the game to overtime, both teams are well aware that this could go either way.
“This comeback means a lot to the team, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Woodcroft, looking ahead to Slovakia. “We will study them honestly. They will definitely be a good and difficult opponent. We’ll be ready. I’m not gonna say any more about that.”
“The main thing is to go out and play as a team, to strike with one fist, to play the active, aggressive hockey that Craig [Woodcroft] preaches,” said Sharangovich. “When we stick to our system, we will get the kind of chances that we saw in the second period today.”
“Against Belarus, we have to stick to our system, play well with the puck, and as soon as we get the puck, we go right to the attack,” said Ramsay. “We have to focus on our game. When we do that, we’re able to make it difficult for any opponent.”
“It will be difficult against Belarus,” said Ceresnak. “We will definitely sit down and study their game. It will be a fight for everything, so we have to be 100 per cent ready for it. We found out that we can score goals, so I hope that it’ll also happen against Belarus.”
The last word goes to Belarusian forward Alexei Protas who confidently stated: “I don’t think we will lose. Everyone understands how important the next game is. We’re ready to play our best hockey.”