Kazakhstan participated in the World Juniors for the first time since 2009 and managed to stay in the top group for another year by sweeping Denmark in the relegation round. Promoted after winning the 2018 Division 1A Championships, the team was primarily made up of players from Snezhnye Barsy Astana, a Kazakh team in the MHL, Russia’s junior league.
During the preliminary round of the tournament, it was patent that the Kazakh team was punching way out of its weight class – they were thoroughly outmatched and lost all four games by scores of 5-0 to Finland, 8-2 to the United States, 11-2 to Slovakia, and 4-1 to Sweden. Kazakhstan’s goalies were under siege facing an average of 56 shots per game, while the team had just 13.75 shots per game on the offensive end. The team fired fewer shots during the entire preliminary round than they gave up during an average game.
A rare feat for a 19-year-old, defenseman Valeri Orekhov has spent most of the season with Barys Astana in the KHL and his experience showed when he led the team in scoring with 4 assists in 4 games. Defenseman Samat Daniyar had 3 assists and winger Artur Gatiyatov, who was named the best forward of the Division 1A tournament last season, had 2 goals and 1 assist during the preliminary round.
Facing a never-ending stream of odd-man breaks, defensive breakdowns, and shifts where it was difficult to differentiate between the penalty kill and 5-on-5, the team’s goalies were called upon repeatedly to stand on their heads. In particular, Demid Yeremeyev and Denis Karatayev were instrumental in keeping the team in games against Finland and Sweden respectively – during the final game of the preliminary round, Karatayev remarkably kept Sweden to just 3 goals until the final minute of the third period.
During the relegation round, the team faced Denmark in a best-of-3 series. Scoreless so far after the preliminary round, Oleg Boiko opened the scoring when he deflected Yevgeni Shinkaretski’s point shot past Danish goaltender Mads Søgaard. After Danish captain Jonas Rondbjerg tied the game, Artyom Korolyov’s cross-seam pass to Yernar Usabyev for his first goal of the tournament restored Kazhakstan’s 1-goal lead.
Denmark had numerous high-quality scoring chances, including one off a brutal turnover by defenseman David Muratov leading to a 3-on-1. Yermeyev came up huge for Kazakhstan repeatedly, aided by Denmark’s tendency to tip and redirect pucks just wide of the goal. Danish frustrations boiled over when David Madsen slammed Muratov from behind into the boards, earning a 10-minute misconduct and a chance for Kazakhstan to extend its lead. Captain Sayan Daniyar, Snezhnye’s leading scorer, tallied his first of the tournament after cutting to the slot on the ensuring power-play to give Kazakhstan a 3-1 lead.
Andreas Grundtvig got Denmark back within a goal in the third period before Gatiyatov intercepted a cross-ice pass at the Danish blueline, leading to a breakaway which he converted for his team-leading third goal of the tournament and a 4-2 Kazakh lead. A late goal by Denmark’s Malte Setkov brought the Danes back within one but Yermeyev shut the door during the remaining 2 minutes and 20 seconds to preserve a pivotal 4-3 win for Kazakhstan despite being outshot 43-19.
During the second game of the relegation round two days later, Gatiyatov caused a turnover in the Danish zone after a dump-in and found the captain Daniyar where he made a great move to slide the puck past Søgaard and give Kazakhstan the critical 1-0 lead just 35 seconds into the game. Minutes later, Aidos Zhorabek rushed the puck into the Danish zone and sped past the defender, fearlessly cutting inside and taking the puck to the front of the net. Although Zhorabek’s shot was stopped by Søgaard, Davyd Makutsky hammered the rebound top-shelf with four Danish defenders around him to get his first of the tournament and give Kazakhstan a two-goal lead.
Yermeyev again made several key saves down the stretch, including a few on odd-man rushes where he managed to just barely get enough of the puck to deflect it into the corners. With the Danish goaltender pulled at the end of the third, Gatiyatov scored a pair of empty-net goals off great feeds from Batyrlan Muratov to cement Kazakhstan’s place in the top group for next year’s World Juniors in the Czech Republic.
A much more complete effort, the team outshot Denmark 25-16 in the second relegation game and limited the Danes to mostly chances off the rush. As undoubtedly the underdogs in every game, the Kazakh team received a groundswell of support from Canadian fans in Victoria and Vancouver – Kazakh merchandise actually ran out at the stores in the arenas.
Kazakhstan relied heavily upon its 19-year-old players at this year’s tournament, including key players such as Yermeyev, leading scorer Gatiyatov (5 goals, 3 assists), as well as top defensemen Orekhov (5 assists) and Daniyar (5 assists). With none of them eligible for next year’s World Juniors, Kazakhstan will need see substantial improvement from its younger players to stave off relegation for another year. That being said, congratulations to Kazakhstan on an improbable victory!