The six-team event saw the host nation take the gold medals after winning all of its games. That means Kazakhstan will be back among the best next season for the first time since 2016. Belarus, relegated from the top flight last season, secured an immediate return after taking second place. It suffered an overtime loss against Kazakhstan and lost out in a dead rubber against Korea but recorded victories in its other three games to finish on 10 points, one better than the Koreans.
The tournament’s key game was on Saturday when Kazakhstan took on Belarus. At that time, both teams were unbeaten and the winner was likely to go on and win gold. For the host, there was added motivation: Kazakhstan had never defeated Belarus in IIHF competition. Head coach Andrei Skabelka, Minsk-born and a former head coach of Belarus at the 2013 Worlds, was delighted to put that record straight thanks to a 3-2 overtime success.
“We are very happy that our team is finally back in the top division,” he told IIHF.com. “I enjoyed this game, it was our best game in the tournament. And I’m very happy to get the team’s first win over Belarus. We wanted this result and we wanted to beat them finally.”
The Kazakhs jumped to a 2-0 lead in the game on goals from Nikita Mikhailis and Talgat Zhailauov, only for Belarus to recover thanks to markers from Artyom Demkov and Nikita Feoktistov. Feoktistov’s goal gave the Belarusians the point they needed to secure a promotion place and the Admiral forward was a relieved man at the end.
“The best thing about the game, and the whole tournament, is that we made it back to the top division,” he said. “It was a nervous game. Really, we should have won it, we had a lot of opportunities but somehow we lost. The main thing is we made it [to promotion].”
Arkady Shestakov got the winner for Kazakhstan in overtime and the host nation followed that up with a 3-1 victory over Hungary on Sunday to secure top spot.
The top two rosters both drew heavily on KHL talent. As usual, Kazakhstan and Belarus drew heavily on players from Barys and Dinamo Minsk, and head coaches Skabelka and Andrei Sidorenko were behind the benches of those clubs last season. In addition, Belarus called on Geoff Platt (Jokerit), Nick Bailen (Traktor) and Nikita Feoktistov (Admiral), while Kazakhstan enlisted Kunlun Red Star’s Martin St.Pierre.
Two other current KHLers were involved in the competition. Torpedo’s Robert Sabolic featured for a Slovenia roster boosted by the appearance of LA Kings star Anze Kopitar. However, the team finished fourth. Lithuania, promoted to this level last season, called up Dinamo Riga defenseman Nerijus Alisauskas but finished bottom of the table and will be relegated back to Division IB. Kunlun Red Star will also have been interested in the performance of Korea’s Sangwook Kim. He’s already preparing for a try-out with the Chinese club and he finished as one of four players tied on four points at the top of the scoring charts. Korea finished in third place, one point behind Belarus and an immediate return to the top table.
The individual awards from the tournament also had a strong KHL flavor. Mikhailis, of Kazakhstan and Barys, was named MVP, team-mate Darren Dietz was picked as best defenseman and Platt was named top forward. Former Neftekhimik man Matt Dalton, now playing in Korea, was picked as the best goalie. Those four, plus Kazakhstan’s Leonid Metalnikov and Red Star prospect Kim, formed the tournament’s All-Star team.
Kazakhstan and Belarus return to the top division for next season’s championship in Switzerland. Belarus knows it will remain in the top flight regardless of results as it is due to co-host in 2021 with Latvia, while Kazakhstan is mulling the prospect of a bid to host the 2026 Worlds in Nur-Sultan and Almaty after the success of this year’s event.