Sunday is D-day for dozens of KHL players hoping to play at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea. It’s the final day of the qualifying process, with three teams set to book the last remaining spots in the 12-team tournament in PyongChang.
In Minsk and Riga there are winner-takes-all showdowns for Belarus against Slovenia and Latvia against Germany, with both host nations drawing heavily on players from Dinamo Minsk and Dinamo Riga. In Oslo, Kazakhstan’s hopes were ended by a 4-1 defeat against France, but CSKA Moscow’s Stephane da Costa and Kunlun Red Star’s Damien Fleury could take Les Bleus to the games with a win over host nation Norway.
For a small hockey nation Latvia has an impressive record of qualifying for the Olympics – it’s been there every time since 2002 after making its first only pre-Soviet appearance way back in 1936. This time around the Baltic State is seeded 10th in the world rankings and goes into Sunday’s showdown on the back of a thumping 8-1 win over Austria and a 3-1 success against Japan. Andris Dzerins, now playing in the Czech Republic after many years in the KHL, leads his country’s scoring with three goals, while Torpedo’s Kaspars Daugavins has chipped in 2+1. They’ll need to maintain that form in Sunday’s decider against the Germans.
The only problem is that Germany has been every bit as impressive, scoring 11 unanswered goals in its two games. Felix Schutz, once of Admiral, is the tournament’s leading scorer with 3+1=4 points as die Mannschaft bids for its first Olympic appearance since 2010.
In Minsk the start of the hockey season was delayed to stage the qualifying tournament: Dinamo plays its first game on Tuesday and the bulk of its players will be hoping to have booked an Olympic place by then. In total, 14 of the Belarusian roster ply their trade for Dinamo while the national team’s assistant coach, Craig Woodcroft, serves behind the bench in the KHL.
Sergei Kostitsyn, a summer signing for Dynamo, has led the scoring for the competition with 2+3=5 points as Belarus beat Denmark 5-2 and Poland 5-3. Kevin Lalande also took plenty of plaudits for his man-of-the-match performance against the Danes, but giving up three goals to a weak Polish team raises concerns about Belarusian defensive strength.
Slovenia, as always, relies heavily on LA Kings star Anze Kopitar, but the Stanley Cup winner is supported by some handy KHL talent. Jan Mursak of CSKA, Slovan’s Ziga Jeglic and Avtomobilist’s recent signing Rok Ticar are all on the roster, along with Admiral’s Robert Sabolic.
Denmark’s trio from Jokerit, defensemen Jesper Jensen and Oliver Lauridsen plus forward Peter Regin, have suffered disappointing time. The Scandinavians had high hopes after reaching a World Championship quarter final in May but lost to Belarus and Slovenia to end their hopes of qualifying for a first-ever Olympics.
Kazakhstan, which qualified for the 2010 Games, sprang a surprise with an overtime win against Norway in Oslo. But Andrei Nazarov’s team slumped to a 1-4 defeat against France, which means it cannot qualify regardless of its result against Italy.
But there is still KHL interest in the decider when Norway plays France. Stephane da Costa got a vital overtime winner for the French against Italy and the CSKA man could make the difference in that showdown, while Kunlun’s Damien Fleury has two goals from his two games and could be heading to Beijing with an Olympic place lined up.
Norway has no current KHLers, but the likes of former Lokomotiv D-man Jonas Holos and ex-SKA forward Patrick Thoresen are well known in the league. Mathis Olimb also had a spell at Jokerit last season, while Mats Zuccarello – perhaps his country’s highest-profile player thanks to his performances for the New York Rangers – played in Magnitogorsk during the 2012-13 lock-out.
Even Italy has one KHL representative on its roster. Defenseman Thomas Larkin, of Medvescak, was born in London, England, but has an Italian mother and learned his hockey in Italy. He was a big part of the team that won an earlier qualifying round in Cortina in February and also helped the Azzurri back to the World Championship last April.