Andy Potts Andy Potts
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This weekend saw the final round of qualification for the men’s ice hockey tournament at next Feburary’s Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. Across Europe, 12 nations competed in three tournaments for the last three spots at the Games. And there was plenty of KHL interest in all three tournaments.

Latvia advances

Riga was the venue for Group E, where Latvia welcomed France, Italy and Hungary. As expected, the tournament came down to a winner-takes-all clash on Sunday between Latvia and France. In the earlier games, the host nation scored 15 unanswered goals, but against a French team that featured Stephane Da Costa and former Sibir forward Charles Bertrand, things were much closer.

Latvia got in front midway through the first period, when a freak deflection put a puck onto Rihards Bukarts’ stick. The Admiral newcomer pounced on the chance, dancing away from Antonin Manavian and beating Henri Buysse in the French goal. In previous games, the Latvians took that as the cue to unleash a powerful offense, but Les Bleus hung around in the game. It wasn’t until early in the third that Miks Indrasis extended the lead with a power play effort.

Even then, France wasn’t done. Da Costa pulled one back in the 51st minute, the first goal scored on Ivars Punnenovs in the entire tournament. There was a nervous finish, with France on the power play and going to 6-on-4 for the final seconds, but the Latvians held on.

The Latvian roster drew heavily on Dinamo Riga players, with Karlis Cukste, Lauris Darzins, Kristaps Sotnieks, Oskars Cibulskis and Ralfs Freibergs all involved. The team also featured Janis Jaks (HC Sochi), Indrasis (Vityaz) and Rihards Bukarts (Admiral).

The tournament success means that Harijs Vitolins, who replaced Bob Hartley as head coach just last month, will now go to the Olympics with his country as a head coach, having previous served Latvia as an assistant at the Games and as a player back in 2002.

Vitolins already has an Olympic gold after assisting Oleg Znarok in Russia’s 2018 triumph in PyeongChang, but now he is thinking about the opposition in that gold medal game as he seeks to inspire Latvia to greater heights.

“We were here for only one thing, we need to get to the Olympics,” Vitolins said. “Our target was to win this qualification and we did it.

“But this is just the start. We want to continue. We remember how Germany won in Riga to reach the last Olympics, and only lost in the final to the Russian team, so we want to keep going. We hope we can get to the next level.”

Latvia joins Finland, Sweden and fellow-qualifier Slovakia in the group stage of the Olympics.

Belarus loses out to Slovakia

Like Latvia, Belarus had a new man behind the bench after a disappointing World Championship. However, Craig Woodcroft, who will continue as head coach of Dinamo Minsk this season, was unable to find the winning formula in Bratislava.

Belarus suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to Poland in the opening game (back in 2019, Poland also stunned Kazakhstan to win through to this stage) and struggled in the first period against Austria before rebounding for a 5-2 win.

That meant that Sunday’s game against unbeaten Slovakia could still send Belarus to Beijing, but the host nation justified its seeding with a 2-1 success.

Woodcroft, disappointed, reflected on a tight battle. 

“Today was a tight-checking game, like we knew it would be,” Woodcroft said. “It was a very close game. Both teams were very hard to play against.”

Again, though, there was plenty of KHL involvement. Slovakia took the lead inside five minutes on a power play goal from Avangard newcomer Peter Cehlarik. He was assisted by Marek Hrivik, who also returns to the KHL this season with Torpedo. To make matters worse for Belarus, the penalty in question was a 5+game for Sergei Sapego after he was called for boarding Juraj Slafkovsky.

Those two played together in Sweden last term, and their understanding on the PP paid dividends. 

“It was nice to get a chance to play together again,” said Cehlarik. “It was a lot of fun.”

Danny Taylor’s goaltending kept the Belarusians in the game and, early in the second, Yegor Sharangovich tied it up in a wild scramble on the Slovak crease.

A tie was not enough for a Belarus — only victory in regulation would see it top Group D. Therefore, as the third period ticked down and the tension ratcheted up, Woodcroft pulled Taylor from the net in search of a winner. Unfortunately, it backfired, and Neftekhimik’s Libor Hudacek scored into the empty net to send Slovakia to Beijing.

“We knew they were going to push it back,” admitted Hrivik. They’ve got a good team over there with some high-end skilled players and we knew they weren’t just going to let this go by.

“They pushed us back a bit but we tried to stick to our gameplan and we’re happy we got it done.”

Slovakia’s KHL contingent included Hrivik (3 games, 1 assist), Cehlarik (3 games, 2 goals) and Hudacek (3 games, 4 goals, 1 assist). Dinamo Minsk goalie Patrik Rybar dressed for all three games but was not used.

Denmark gets past Norway

In Oslo, Denmark overcame the seeding — and the weight of history — to get to the Games. It ends a 75-year wait for the Scandinavians since they joined the IIHF in 1946 and marks a new stage in the country’s hockey progress. As in Riga, this group went according to the script, with Norway and Denmark easily overcoming Slovenia and Korea in the opening match-ups.

That set up a final on Sunday, with Denmark prevailing 2-0. Goals from Frederik Storm and Nik Ehlers made the difference, with Sebastian Dahm’s 26 saves frustrating the Norwegian host. The Danish team here included Salavat Yulaev defenseman Philip Larsen (one assist in three games) and Jokerit forward Nicklas Jensen (no points in three games).

Denmark’s group-stage opponents in Beijing will be Russia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

Andy Potts Andy Potts
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