My efforts to preview Friday’s Slovakia vs Kazakhstan game at the World Juniors were stopped cold by a chilling news flash. A passenger plane carrying 100 people had slammed into a building in the Kazakhs’ homeland, and I feared the absolute worst, not believing the initial estimates of only a handful of dead. Over a dozen people did lose their lives in the tragic Bek Air accident.
Would the Kazakhstan U20 team even want to play? Would the teenagers spend a sleepless night calling home and checking on loved ones? Sportswriters covering the morning beat at the WJC had the unenviable task of weighing a Kazakh tragedy’s size and scope against even bothering the coaches or players to comment on it.
It now appears the absolute worst was avoided back in Kazakhstan. Yet there’s no question that the young athletes heard the news and were emotionally affected.
What a time to find a nightmare waiting on Instagram.
Over the last 2 days, Team Kazakhstan has challenged for a quarterfinal berth in the Czech Republic, and results have been outstanding – just outstanding enough to bring real heartbreak into the picture.
Sergei Starygin’s team nearly prevailed in its best chance to win a game and avoid the relegation round on Friday, when Kazakhstan met Slovakia at Werk Arena.
Regretfully, Team Kazakhstan fell 3-1 after allowing 2 goals in the final 3 minutes.
Starygin may have viewed “attack vs defense” as a false dilemma going into the tournament. For the 2nd game in a row, Kazakhstan played spirited hockey with and without the puck, blocking shots in front of Vladislav Nurek, aggressively killing penalties, and forcing the Slovaks to take penalties of their own. Following Oliver Okuliar’s goal to put Slovakia up 1-0 in the 2nd period, Maxim Musorov scored his 3rd tally of the WJC on a man-advantage to even the score until late in the 3rd.
Kazakhstan whiffed on a pair of power-play opportunities with 10 and 7 minutes to go, opening the door for a counterattack. Daniel Vladimir Tkac sniped the winner off a scramble in front of Nurek’s crease as a packed pro-Slovakia crowd ignited.
It took the trailing team far too long to pull Nurek and gain a 6-on-5 advantage, and Slovakia’s Robert Dzugan scored a long empty-netter to seal the deal with 7 seconds remaining.
Relegation Round Now Likely for Kazakhstan
The devastating outcome on Day 2 might further harm the morale of Kazakhstan’s unheralded U20 squad. However, players must be encouraged to put things in perspective…and not simply against the grim headlines back home.
Suppose this were an ordinary World Junior Championship, and Team KAZ was an ordinary “weak sister” in a Group A full of elites. The final scores of Day 1 and Day 2 would have been embarrassments. 7-0 or 8-1 or 11-2, as Slovakia beat Kazakhstan last time-around. The fact is that the games against Switzerland and Slovakia – neither a slouch on the world hockey stage – were close enough to cause dramatic defeats. The sting of such defeats should not overwhelm the sense of pride. Kazakhstan has played like a contender even as the Q-Finals appear to slip out of reach.
Switzerland had its problems with Kazakhstan’s blue line in a 5-3 Group A win, but the defense corps was already a bright spot. It has been the team’s attack – producing 4 come-from-behind goals against stubborn defending teams – which has impressed onlookers. After scoring 2 times against the Swiss and again on Friday, Musorov is tied with Shane Pinto of Team USA for the tourney lead in goals.
The schedule turns nasty for Kazakhstan in the final 2 round-robin games.
Sure, the underdogs will get a day off on the 28th, but Sunday the 29th brings a match-up with Finland, to be followed by a game against Sweden the next day. Those 2 nations are bigger, faster, and deeper in U20 hockey than the best Kazakhstan lineup could hope to be.
Fears that Team Kazakhstan’s would get blown away in Group A have been overstated. Remember, no matter what the outcomes of the next 2 contests, Kazakhstan is guaranteed a relegation-round playoff with Group B’s caboose.
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