While most of the world was off watching Team Canada destroy Team Germany in Group A action, I was tasked to watch the non-televised middle-power game between Belarus and Slovakia. Don’t get me wrong: I love each and every international hockey game, regardless of the teams, and Belarus-Slovakia is a vastly underrated matchup in World Championships history.
In the 2012 World Championships, the Slovakians lit up Belarussian goalie Vitali Koval for a score of 5-1, in a win that all but clinched Slovakia’s berth into the quarter finals that year. In 2010, Belarus again beat Slovakia, this time by a score of 4-2, in a game which decided seeding going into the playoff qualification round. And, in 2009, the two played all the way through to the shootout, where forward Oleg Antonenko put home the game winning goal for Belarus. It’s not a storybook rivalry like Sweden-Finland or USA-Canada, but Belarus and Slovakia have been on equal footing for nearly a decade in the top division, so any game is likely to be a nailbiter.
Their game at the 2015 Worlds, like most games between two middling hockey powers, was a battle for the neutral zone throughout. Both Belarus and Slovakia fought for possession dominance through speed, zone entries, and aggressive forechecking. In the end, two goals by Slovakian defenseman Andrej Meszaros, including one in overtime, pushed the Slovakians over the Belarussians by a score of 2 to 1.
Early on in the first period, it seemed that Belarus had the upper hand. Their top line of Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, and captain Alexei Kalyuzhniy pressured the Slovakians hard on the forecheck, utilizing their speed to create turnovers and, in exchange, shots on net. The rest of the Belarussians displayed some serious dangling ability, especially third liner Andrei Stepanov, who ‘stepped’ around the Slovakian defense on multiple occasions in the game to put the puck on net.
Despite this apparent speed advantage early, Slovakia took advantage of their mix of size and speed to win most of the loose puck battles in the game. Although they struggled with clean zone entries in the first 20 minutes, their top line of Marian Gaborik, Tomas Kopecky, and Marko Dano eventually found their offensive niche in the second frame. Slovakia’s bottom six also contributed offensively, but truly performed after the first period on the forecheck. A heavy saturation of Slovakian forwards between the red line and the Slovakian blue line made it nearly impossible for Belarus to gain the zone cleanly in the final 40 minutes of the game.
This focus by both teams on preventing forward ice movement for the opposition is one huge reason for the lack of quality chances and scoring in the game. Overall, Slovakia outshot Belarus 34 to 18 over the course of four periods of play, with the gap in shots being explained by Slovakia’s zone entry strategy in the 3rd period: go in hard with speed, maintain possession across the blue line, and put shots onto Belarussian goaltender Kevin Lalonde.
After the Slovakian win, both teams move into their third games of the tournament with records of 1-0-1-0 (one win and one overtime/shootout loss each). This gives both 4 points, putting them 3rd and 4th in Group B before the Finland-Denmark game later today.
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