The margin for error throughout the entire history of Olympic ice hockey has never been anything less than razor thin. And the enormus pressure traditionally accompanying the planet’s most high-profile international ice hockey tournament has always been palpable. All too often, it has been this lethal combination which has resulted in disaster for so many hopes and dreams of a number of different national teams over the years.
Aside from a fateful third period in the opening contest against upstart Slovenia, it is hard to be extremely critical of the BELARUS national team’s entire performance at the XXII Winter Olympic Games – Group F Qualfication Tournament in Vojens, Denmark. Indeed, experienced Belarus netminder VITALI KOVAL of Russian Kontinental Hockey League club Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod only faced five shots in the last twenty minutes against the surprising Slovenians at the sparsely-attended Syd Energi Arena. But the two goals surrendered (one via a penalty shot) with virtually no one present to bear witness in Vojens ultimately decided which of these two countries will be skating in Sochi next season with the whole world watching.
To cut the unfortunate Koval a little bit of slack, it should be recalled that Belarus blasted Slovenia 7-1 at the 2011 IIHF World Championships in Slovakia but the Olympic squad of new national team trainer ANDREI SKABELKA (which featured eleven of the very same players — including hat trick hero ANDREI MIKHALEV — who had hammered the Slovenians in Bratislava) did not come any where near close to flexing that same kind of offensive muscle against the improved Slovenians at the qualification tournament in Denmark.
In a return meeting of the famous quarterfinal match from the 2002 Winter Olympic Games at Salt Lake City, youthful Belarus right wing SERGEI KOSTITSYN (74) of the Montreal Canadiens shields the puck from Sweden defenseman HENRIK TALLINDER (10) of the Buffalo Sabres during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games – Group C contest at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver.
Even before the National Hockey League’s well-documented “Lock-Out” situation was settled earlier this season, Belarus never really were counting on either MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 29-year-old center who just so happens to be the second leading scorer in the history of the national team (44 ga, 15 go, 37 pts) at major internatonal tournaments, or right wing SERGEI KOSTITSYN of the Nashville Predators. Skabelka’s charges might have done with the skill and experience of NHL veteran ANDREI KOSTITSYN, the 28-year-old who has skated for Belarus at six IIHF World Championships (27 ga, 7 go, 18 pts) in his career, for the Olympic qualification tournament in Denmark. On the eve of the competition in Vojens, however, the patient trainer Skabelka was finally forced to continue without the elder Kostitsyn brother after the Traktor Chelyabinsk right wing remained inexplicably absent from national team training camp.
Unlike the host nation Denmark, the Belarusians were also unable to secure the release of an American Hockey League player for the XXII Winter Olympic Games – Group F Qualfication Tournament in Vojens. The Tampa Bay Lightning were unwilling to part with undrafted prospect DMITRI KOROBOV, the 23-year-old defenseman who has spent the entire season with the Syracuse Crunch and is yet to make his NHL debut after inking a two-year, two-way contract last August. The former Dynamo Minsk rearguard has already appeared for Belarus at the annual IIHF World Championships on three occasions (16 ga, 2 go, 8 pts), including the last two events.
The Belarusian cause, it should be noted, could have also done with more from aging center ALEXEI KALYUZHNY of Russian KHL club Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. The 35-year-old veteran of three Winter Olympic Games (1998, 2002, 2010) is, in fact, the all-time leading scorer for Belaurs at major international tournaments (12 app, 74 ga, 20 go, 45 pts) and had done particularly well scoring (ten goals in seventeen games) on his last three appearances for the national side. Alas, Kalyuzhny was held off the scoresheet during the critical Olympic qualifier with the Slovenia at Vojens.
Seasoned right wing KONSTANTIN KOLTSOV of Russian KHL club Atlant Mytishchi Moscow, the two-time Olympic veteran who once was the first round pick (# 18 overall) of the Pittsburgh Penguins and has represented Belarus at nine major international tournaments (42 ga, 9 go, 18 pts) in his career, also did not do much to impress at Vojens.
Belarus right wing ANDREI KOSTITSYN (23), the 28-year-old veteran who was the tenth overall player selected at the 2003 National Hockey League Draft and skated 398 NHL games (103 go, 222 pts) for the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators before signing with Russian KHL club Traktor Chelyabinsk this past fall, missed the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada as a result of a knee injury and will not be appearing at the 2014 Sochi Games, either.
It was, of course, very sad that the national team of Belarus was forced to soldier on in Denmark without the services of its late captain RUSLAN SALEI, the three-time Olympian and long-time NHL defenseman who tragically lost his life when a plane carrying the entire Russian KHL squad of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl crashed in September of 2011; considering that Latvia, who lost Olympic veteran Karlis Skrastins in that terrible accident a few years ago, were capably skippered by the 40-year-old NHL veteran Sandis Ozolins at their Olympic qualification tournament in Riga, it is not unreasonable to think that Salei, a rugged defender who skated 916 NHL games (45 go, 204 pts) in his career and would still have only been 38 years of age in February of 2013, could have had a major impact on the blue line for the Belarusians in Vojens.
Ironically enough, the influential third period penalty shot that turned the tide at the Syd Energi Arena in favor of the Slovenians once and for all had been conceded by inexperienced defenseman ILYA KAZNADEI, the 23-year-old Metallurg Zhlobin defenseman who has never suited up for Belarus at a major international tournament.
“Of course we feel a little bit of pressure because everybody knows in our country the government, they spent alot of money for sport and, you know, they need the results,” confessed current Belarus captain VLADIMIR DENISOV of Dynamo Minsk, the 28-year-old defenseman who skated two years in the American Hockey League (128 ga, 7 go, 28 pts) for the Lake Erie Monsters and Hartford Wolf Pack and also had a season in the Swiss Nationalliga A with HC Ambri Piotta, as well, after the rebounding 6-0 triumph over Ukraine on the second day of the Olympic qualification tournament in Denmark.
Much to the chagrin of ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO, the demanding President of Belarus, the requisite results would not be forthcoming.
Belarus right wing ALEXEI MIKHALEV (10) of Dynamo Minsk, the 34-year-old veteran who has skated at nine major international events (47 ga, 5 go, 9 pts) in his career, dumps Denmark left wing NICHLAS HARDT (44) of Finnish elite league club Jokerit Helsinki, the developing 24-year-old who has appeared at the past five IIHF World Championships (32 ga, 8 go, 11 pts), during the closing contest of the XXII Winter Olympic Games – Group F Qualification Tournament at the Syd Energi Arena in Vojens.
In keeping with the overall theme of an Olympic debacle, the Disciplinary Committee of the International Ice Hockey Federation announced in early March that Belarus right wing ALEXEI MIKHALEV has been issued a provisional suspension after testing positive for a banned substance during the XXII Winter Olympic Games – Group F Qualification Tournament in Vojens, Denmark.
The Dynamo Minsk veteran was founded to have the stimulant “methylhexaneamine” in his sample submitted to IIHF officials at the conclusion of the Belarus v Ukraine match on February 8, 2013.
Mikhalev is now barred from all club and international competition until the IIHF Disciplinary Committee completes a standard review and issues a final decision on the player’s punishment.