Team Belarus is used to playing the spoiler at the World Championships and Olympics. Although the team is not a serious medal contender, the Belarusians are capable of upsetting an unprepared opponent. Team Belarus typically plays a solid positional game with a focus on team defense and goaltending. Lack of scoring punch and overall depth is usually the team’s biggest issue. Unfortunately for the Belarusians, the roster is stretched even thinner than usual.
Mikhail Zakharov took over as Belarus’ new head coach in early December, replacing former NHL goaltender and coach Glen Hanlon. Zakharov, the bench boss for Yunost Minsk of the Belarus Open League, inherits a squad that may be without three of its most important players -- defenseman Ruslan Salei and forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Mikhail Grabovski -- due to injury.
Belarus has drawn a preliminary round pool consisting of defending Olympic gold medalist Sweden, defending silver medalist Finland and Germany. The Swedes know all too well of the perils of underestimating Belarus, having learning the hard way back in the 2002 quarterfinals. History is unlikely to repeat itself, but anything can happen in a short tournament like the Olympics.
For Belarus to beat the Germans and scratch out a major upset or two in the tournament, it’s imperative to stay out of the penalty box and to receive stellar goaltending from veteran Andrei Mezin. The latter has often been the case in recent years, but there’s only so much a goalie can do. One thing working in the Belarusians' favor is the absence of pressure on the team to win. Sometimes, a loose, hard-working team can hang close against a highly favored opponent for two periods and then frustrate the other team into making fatal mistakes.
Among NHL followers, there is a common belief that any player who is not in the world’s best league is automatically an inferior player. But Team Belarus starting goaltender Andrei Mezin has proven himself capable of matching NHL goalies save for save in international competitions. The 35-year-old Mezin has played both in the North American minor leagues and in various European pro leagues, so he’s unlikely to be phased by the atmosphere in Vancouver.
Mezin has extensive of international experience and has shown the ability to get hot at times. He’s had a solid KHL season for Dynamo Minsk and was outstanding at the World Championships last year (4-1 record, 1.72 goals against average, .948 save percentage). For Belarus to have any shot at toppling Finland, Sweden or any other higher echelon opponent, Mezin will have to play even better.
Belarus is likely to be significantly out-chanced and outshot in most of its games. Shot differentials of around 50-15 are common when Belarus plays top-grade opponents. While Mezin is often at his best when he sees a lot of rubber, there’s only so much he can do. His defense will have to clear away rebounds and the team will have to keep the world’s most dangerous attackers to the perimeter whenever possible.
If Mezin gets injured or otherwise has to be pulled, his primary backup will be his Dynamo Minsk teammate, Vitali Koval. He played well at the 2008 World Championships, and backed up Mezin at last year’s World Championships. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Koval covers a lot of net, especially in close
Back surgery has limited Ruslan Salei to one NHL game this season. He was recently activated from long-term injured reserve by the Colorado Avalanche, but sat out as a scratch in the Avs’ 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues. Ideally, the 35-year-old would like to get in a little game action before heading for the Olympics.
Even if he is not at the peak of his game in terms of stamina and timing, Team Belarus still desperately needs Salei’s on-ice services and off-ice leadership. Salei has captained the national team in the past, and is relied on to play against opposing team’s top lines. Although he has never been known as an offensive defenseman at the NHL level, Salei also takes on power play responsibilities when playing for his national team.
Beyond Salei, Zakharov will rely heavily on Vladimir Denisov. In international competition, the former AHL player (who returned home this season to suit up for Dynamo Minsk) often plays 20-plus minutes per game for Belarus, including time on the power play.
The remainder of the starting defense for Belarus is unfamiliar to most North American fans, but the lineup features a pair of players with solid international experience under their belt in 30-year-old Viktor Kostyuchenok and 27-year-old Andrei Bashko. Belarus opted toward younger defensemen to fill the remaining roster slots rather than going with older veterans such as the ageless Oleg Leontiev.
Even under ideal circumstances, Belarus is going to have its work cut out to generate offense in the Olympics. What already figures to be a tough task could become virtually impossible if Andrei Kostitsyn (knee surgery in January) is unable to play. His absence seems likely at this point. The team already suffered a major blow when Mikhail Grabovski (broken wrist) learned that he would not be cleared for contact until after the Olympics and would be unable to play in the tournament.
The absence of Andrei Kostitsyn and Grabovski leaves Sergei Kostitsyn as Belarus’ most dangerous offensive threat. To say Sergei has had a tumultuous season so far is putting it mildly, but there is no denying his skill level. Meanwhile, former Pittsburgh Penguins’ first-round pick Konstantin Koltsov was a bust in the NHL, but is now a mainstay in the KHL and a proven international competition performer.
With Belarus unlikely to score many goals, it will rely on its forwards to play defensively responsible hockey and for various lines to execute when counterattacks develop. The experienced likes of the diminutive Sergei Zedelenov and well regarded younger players such as Vladimir Kulakov will have to chip in offensively when opportunity knocks.
A hot goaltender can cover a lot of flaws for his team. On paper, Mezin cannot hope to measure up to the elite goaltenders competing in the tournament, but he shown in the past that he’s capable of stealing games for Belarus. Even if Mezin plays the tournament of his life, he may not have much to show for it. Nevertheless, opposing players who underestimate his quickness usually skate away shaking their heads.
Striking it rich
Belarus is unlikely to pull off another upset of Sweden or topple Finland in the preliminary round. The game against Germany is a must-win for the Belarusians and the team would be satisfied to extend any of its higher end opponents to overtime or a shootout even if it doesn’t prevail in the end. But as the Belarusians showed eight years ago and the Swiss demonstrated four years ago in toppling Canada and the Czech Republic, the gap is bridgeable in any single game when the goaltending is in place and the club finds ways to scrape up just enough offense.