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Belarus thrives in role of Olympic spoiler

by Bill Meltzer
Ranked No.9 in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, Belarus rarely draws much 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 Team Belarus has proven through the years that opponents who underestimate it do so at their own peril.

In 2002, Belarus scored one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. The Belarusians stunned Team Sweden, punctuating the victory with a freakish Vladimir Kopat goal that went in off goaltender Tommy Salo's mask. More recently, Belarus gelled at the World Championships under the leadership of former Washington Capitals head coach Glen Hanlon.

The typical Team Belarus roster is anchored by savvy veterans on defense.

The team usually has a bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy and relies on forwards to help out in the defensive zone. Belarus must be opportunistic offensively because it usually gets out-chanced.

At the top of its game, though, Team Belarus has several offensive players who are skilled at dangling with the puck around the perimeter. Putting the puck in the net is often a different story. When Belarus wins, it's usually a low-scoring affair.

For Belarus to down Germany and throw a scare into Sweden and Finland in the preliminary round of the Vancouver Games, it will need all of its NHL players to be healthy and productive.

The 2010 Olympic roster is unlikely to vary much from the lineup Belarus featured at the most recent 2008 World Championships.

Scrappy veteran NHL defenseman Ruslan Salei often logs close to 30 minutes of ice time per game when playing for Belarus. The Colorado Avalanche defenseman  will probably do so again when the Belarusians take the ice in Vancouver. Salei will turn 35 this November 2009, so the 2010 tournament is likely to be his final Olympic appearance.

Hartford Wolf Pack defenseman Vladimir Denisov is another shoo-in for the Belarusian roster. He will be called upon to play more than 20 minutes per game. Denisov was a team-best plus-4 at the 2008 Worlds, despite Belarus' unimpressive (1-5) record.  Detroit Red Wings prospect Sergei Kolosov, who calls Grand Rapids in the AHL home, is also likely to be tabbed again to play for the national team.

The remainder of the Belarus blueline is usually anchored by European leaguers that have logged plenty of international experience and rarely get intimidated. Players such as 30-year-old Viktor Kostyuchenko, Andrei Bashko and 33-year-old Alexander Zhurik may not be household names, but all are capable of holding their own.

Up front, Belarus chronically lacks consistent scoring punch.

It's an absolute must for brothers Andrei Kostitsyn and Sergei Kostitsyn to be at the top of their games if Belarus is to make any noise in Vancouver. Both players -- especially Andrei -- can be dangerous any time they get the puck in open ice. However, the brothers still need to show greater game-in and game-out focus. Sergei recently got a wake-up call from the Montreal Canadiens when he was demoted to the AHL.

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski, who will be 26 by the time the Olympics arrive, is another automatic selection for Team Belarus. He was held to three assists and no goals in five games at the most recent World Championships and must do better than that at the Olympics.

Undersized forward Alexei Ugarov, who plays in the Kontinental Hockey League for HK MVD, is skilled with the puck and knows how to finish plays when he's open in the slot. The 2010 Games will be his first Olympic tourney, but the winger, who will turn 24 in November, already has three World Championships under his belt, and has scored seven goals and 10 points in his past dozen international games.

Former Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick Konstantin Koltsov was a bust in the NHL. But he is now a mainstay for defending KHL champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa and will be called upon to provide some offense in the Olympics.

The rest of the Belarusian forwards are likely to be a mix-and-match collection of European league veterans supplemented by younger players who are simply gaining experience. Vets such as Dinamo Minsk's Sergei Zadelenov, 33, HK MVD's Oleg Antonenko, 37, provide leadership and stability to the national team.

The Belarusians lack a dominating presence in goal who can be called upon to single-handedly steal games against elite opposition.

However, Dinamo Minsk's Vitali Koval, 29, gave a solid accounting of himself at the 2008 Worlds, posting a commendable .912 save percentage in six starts. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Koval covers a lot of net.

Team Belarus doesn't have any expectations of taking a medal home from Vancouver. But when it's in synch, the Belarusian lineup can be a dangerous opponent. As a result, there will be no easy games for any opponent that takes on this side.

Just ask Sweden.

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