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Belarus playing spoiler at Worlds once again

by Bill Meltzer /
For the second time in four years, Team Belarus has earned a spot in the medal round of International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships.

The Belarusians have scored upsets against Slovakia and Finland. Belarus will be still be a severe underdog when the team faces off Wednesday with Russia in the medal-round quarterfinals, but the tournament in Switzerland has already been a smashing success regardless of the outcome.

It's hardly surprising anymore when Team Belarus makes an overconfident opponent pay. Belarus has a history of playing the spoiler in major international competitions. Ranked No. 9 in the world by the IIHF, Belarus rarely draws much media attention at the Olympics or World Championships. Apart from a smattering of NHL players, the Belarusian roster is usually filled with players who are little-known outside Minsk or the Kontinental Hockey League.

But the veteran-laden Belarusians believe in themselves, believe in the system they play and believe in their coach. It's no coincidence that both times the team has reached the World Championship medal round it has done so with former NHL goaltender and coach Glen Hanlon manning the bench. In an unlikely relationship, the former Washington Capitals coach has emerged as the one of the most respected figures in Belarusian hockey.

The 52-year-old Hanlon, who spent the 2008-09 season coaching in Finland for Jokerit Helsinki, has shown a knack for unifying the Belarusian players and getting them to put aside personal goals for the good of the team. In 2006, he led the national team to a sixth-place finish at the World Championships and was named Sportsman of the Year by the biggest sporting newspaper in Belarus.

Hanlon has tightened the same system that brought the team success at the 2006 tournament. Belarus clogs the neutral zone, often stacking all five skaters near their own blue line. When the club can scratch an opportunistic goal or two and stay out of the penalty box, it has a fighting chance to win.

"It's much better for our team to play with the lead," said Belarus forward Mikhail Grabovski. "We like to play good defense and wait for our chances."

Apart from Toronto Maple Leafs forward Grabovski, veteran Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ruslan Salei is the only current NHL player on Hanlon's roster. Sergei and Andre Kostitsyn, who have had a forgettable year on and off the ice, are not with the squad this year. Grabovski (3 goals, 6 points), Oleg Antonenko (2 goals, and shootout winners against Belarus and Russia), Alexei Ugarov (2 goals) and the injured Alexei Kaliuzhny (1 goal, 5 points in four games) have had to supply the lion's share of offense for team that has scored just 11 goals in six matches.
Not surprisingly, the low-scoring squad has trouble battling from behind, but has proven difficult to overcome when the score is tied or the team is playing from ahead. Even when opponents penetrate the Belarusian defense, veteran goaltender Andrei Mezin has had the answers. In four starts, Mezin has allowed just five goals (1.18 goals-against average) and stopped 135 of 140 shots for an astounding .964 save percentage. He posted a 2.01 GAA when Belarus took sixth place in the 2006 tourney.

Without question, Belarus' shining moment in this year's tournament was its 2-1 shootout victory against heavily favored Finland. In that tilt, the Belarusians caught the Finns napping at the start of the game. Just five seconds after the opening faceoff, Sergei Demagin fired a wrist shot that beat goaltender Pekka Rinne high to the glove side to set a tournament record for the fastest goal from the start of play.

The Finns got their only goal on an early second-period power-play goal. With Alexander Riadinski in the penalty box for elbowing, Finnish defenseman Janne Niskala wristed a shot past a screened Mezin. Even after giving up the tying goal, the Belarusians stuck to their system. In the shootout, Antonenko scored twice and Grabovski once to seal the win.

Prior to the victory against the Finns, the Belarusians had followed a similar script to upend Slovakia during the preliminary round of the tournament. The team made a 1-0 lead (courtesy of Andrei Stas) stand up until late in regulation. Antoneko then won the game with a pair of goals in the shootout.

A 3-0 Belarusian loss to the Czech Republic set up Wednesday's meeting with Russia. In the game against the Czechs, Belarus once again had its opponent frustrated. This time, though, the Belarusians couldn't scratch out any goals and the Czechs finally broke a scoreless game midway through regulation on a Petr Cajanek shorthanded goal. A late second-period power-play goal by Patrik Elias all but sealed the deal. The Czechs added an insurance goal in the final stanza.

The Russians should provide an even tougher test for the Belarusians. Their team speed and puck movement often forces Belarus into penalty trouble. For Belarus to have any shot at scoring its biggest international victory since its Olympic upset against Sweden, it's crucial for the team to stay out of the box.

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