By Chapin Landvogt – IIHF.com
Timely goals, a clear cut mission, and a boatload of routine ultimately proved to be simply too much for the rest of the competition at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A this past week in Bremerhaven, Germany, as these proved to be the ingredients that allowed Belarus to slip by the competition on its way to promotion.
Ten seconds before the siren rang to complete Belarus‘ 4-0 victory over Austria, ensuring a move back up into the world‘s top U20 group, the arena was flooded with the sound of emphatic cheers and the clapping of sticks coming from Belarus‘ player bench.
Not long thereafter, all those sticks were scattered across the ice along with helmets and gloves as the team hurriedly piled itself on top of its goalie Alexander Osipkov, who had just pitched his first shutout of the event, beating Austria 4-0 to claim first place overall in the tournament.
“I am so happy right now,” shouted team captain Ilya Sushko. “I am happy for this magic end to the tournament. I’m happy for my teammates and the coaching staff. I’m so relieved, because no-one gave us this tournament as a present. All of the teams were good. Every game was difficult. We had to battle for everything. I am so proud of our accomplishments.”
The path to promotion was anything but easy for a program that just about looked to be in shambles after being dominated by Switzerland in the relegation round of last winter’s World Juniors in Helsinki, Finland. After a clear 6-3 victory over France to get the tournament started, the team needed three third-period goals against Norway to ensure a 4-2 win. A 4-3 overtime loss to host Germany was followed by a hard-fought 3-1 win over Kazakhstan.
The elation head coach Yuri Faikov felt couldn’t be masked. “I simply can’t find the words to describe how good this feels. We worked so hard for this. I am very proud of everyone involved.”
Today’s conclusive 4-0 victory was once again made possible thanks to the offensive contributions of the tournament’s top goal scorer Alexander Belevich (6 goals), later named the tournament’s top forward, and the point production of linemate Ruslan Vasilchuk, who concluded the game tied for the tournament lead with 10 points, having contribute three to this decisive victory.
“I can’t tell you how great this feeling is right now,” explained an excited Vasilchuk. “All these opponents were so strong and demanded so much of us to achieve this promotion. If I’m around the top of the scoring list here, it’s only been made possible by my teammates, who I’d like to thank for their play and sacrifice in making this experience possible.”
The chemistry between him and Belevich ended up playing a crucial role for the team’s success. And it isn’t something that just showed up out of nowhere.
“It’s hard to say what the key to this is. We played together at other tournaments before and things clicked. The coaching staff put us together here as well and it worked out again. We first really met last year as part of the U20 team, but it feels like we’ve known each other for a long, long time now.”
Of course, Belevich isn’t one to claim he was here in Bremerhaven looking to be the tournament’s top sniper. “I didn’t come here with any such expectations. I just wanted us to show up as a team and hit the ice with a purpose. It’s just a coincidence that I ended up scoring a good amount of goals. It is thanks to my partners and teammates that this was possible whatsoever.”
The year has now been a real big one of Belarussian hockey, which not only gained promotion here in Bremerhaven, but had also done so domestically in Minsk last spring at the U18 World Championship. A very common denominator there was head coach Yuri Faikov, who has manned the bench for both teams.
“It’s been such a huge year moving up at both the U18 and U20 levels,” said Faikov. “The team we have here now is a completely different team from the team that played in Finland. We as a program have unified our system from the men’s national team to the U20 to the U18. It’s been a lot of hard work and we’ve faced fierce competition in both tournaments. But yes, we’ve decided to go a different route and can now look forward to a new challenge and new results next year at this time.”
“I can’t thank the coaching staff enough for all the time and effort they put into us. I am so happy to see that all our hard work and preparation this year has led to this success, and it couldn’t be done without them,” explains Vasilchuk, speaking for the team in showing his appreciation of all Faikov and his staff have invested into these achievements.
Forward Maxim Sushko, currently playing in Canada’s Ontario Hockey League, could only concur, seeing as how he should be a big part of the team next winter in Buffalo. “I want to say thanks to the staff and all the guys born in 1997 and 1998. They’ve given us younger guys an excellent opportunity to present ourselves at the highest level of hockey and even more to a whole world of NHL scouts and media. It’s so amazing to know we’ll be part of it all next winner.”
The presentation in Bremerhaven has shown that Belarus is ready to take on 2017 with all it’s got to offer.
For Norway, the tournament ended in the worst way imaginable, namely relegation.
Despite a pre-tournament 5-3 victory over Germany, the team kicked off things with a 6-3 loss to Austria followed by a 4-2 loss to Belarus, before squeaking by France with a tight 3-2 victory. With things looking like the Scandinavian nation was back on track, Norway couldn‘t muster a goal in a very tight 2-0 loss to Germany, a game that remained goalless until Bremerhaven‘s own Christoph Korner first popped in a power play goal in the 52nd minute of play. The goal drought continued in a do-or-die match with Kazakhstan, in which the Norwegians remainder scoreless until the third period.
Two late goals in the third period made things interesting, but it proved to be too little too late as Kazakhstan heartily celebrated their class retention. In U20 history Norway only twice was not part of the top-16 hockey nations, in 1998 and in 2007. 2011 and 2014 the country even played in the top-division World Juniors.
“The feeling is tough right now. It’s brutal. It’s tough knowing the games are over and we’re heading down. We’ve been close to this point before and we have to improve the situation with Norwegian hockey,” explained head coach Tor Erik Nilsen. “We need to invest our money more wisely. We need better coaching. We need our kids to have a better sense for the game. This relegation is definitely a heads up for Norwegian hockey. If we don’t do anything, it’s going to be like this.”
For Kazakhstan, which enjoyed a very convincing 6-3 win over Austria along the way, the victory was of decisive importance.
“Winning is always important, but this victory was vital for us,” said captain Kirill Panyukov. “This was big not only for the team, but for the entire country, because by retaining the class, we now have a strong opportunity to hold the tournament in Kazakhstan next year.”
Things are getting closer
If anything, this tournament proved more than ever that the competition continues to get closer and more even. Every team won at least one game and every team experienced at least one loss by two or less goals. Austria, for example, began with two very decisive victories, including a 3-0 shutout of host Germany, before proceeding to lose three games in a row, started by an unexpected 6-3 loss to Kazakhstan.
“Most certainly. When you see the results here, it’s clear things are getting tighter,” states Norwegian coach Nilsen. “If we had won the close game against Germany, we could have played for promotion today. Instead we played for relegation. Last year we beat Italy 10-1. This year, there was no Italy. Every game was tight. And that’s great. It’s great for hockey, but also for the players. Every game matters and that’s how you get better.”
Host Germany entered the tournament with high expectations, especially in light of a roster chock full of kids playing their last tournament as a member of the nation’s junior program. Consistency proved a bit of a problem, as the team experienced a number of swoons in momentum throughout the tournament, even if the only loss of points was to Austria and an overtime point to Belarus.
“I kept mentioning before the tournament that every team could win on any given day,” elaborated German Head Coach Christian Kunast. “If we have a good tournament, we can move up. If we have a bad tournament, we’ll be moving down. Hey, we had a close game against Norway the other night. We knew that if we lose, we’d be playing today to avoid relegation. We ended up second despite only one loss. It’s so close in this group and it’s not going to get any easier. But this is a top flight tournament for our boys and there’s a lot they can take from this type of competition. It’s so incredibly difficult to move up another level when there’s this level of level of competition.”
These sentiments were only reiterated by his Belarussian colleague Faikov: “The level of play was very high from all of the competitors, much like we saw at the U18 in Minsk last spring. You had to be ready for every team. Any team could surprise at any time. You could never afford to take a day off. In fact, when you see how good the teams are getting here in the Division I Group A, it’s my personal opinion that the top group should consider expanding to include more teams.”
As things stand now, the Belarusians can simply watch and enjoy the 2017 World Juniors in Montreal and Toronto, fully aware that their ticket is punched for the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, New York.
“I fully believe we belong amongst the elite teams in the world at the U20 level. I have no doubt of that,” claims confident sniper Belevich. “We are on the right path and we’ll be ready to show that to everyone next winter in Buffalo.”