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(News Focus) Once on hockey periphery, S. Korea makes history thanks to speed, goaltending

2017/04/29 09:48

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, April 29 (Yonhap) -- Move over Canada, you've got company.

At next year's men's hockey world championship, South Korea will be in the same competition as the undisputed world No. 1 and the two-time reigning Olympic champion. Though ranked just 23rd in the world, South Korea played its way into the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship, open only to 16 nations, thanks to its speed, effective forechecking and strong goaltending.

South Korea earned the promotion to the top-tier competition by finishing in the top two at the IIHF World Championship Division I Group A, the second-highest level of international hockey. South Korea opened the tournament in Kiev, Ukraine, with three straight wins over Poland, Kazakhstan and Hungary. It had a hiccup against Austria, losing 5-0, but bounced back to defeat Ukraine 2-1 in the shoot-out to cap off the historic run.

Austria won the event with 12 points, one ahead of South Korea. Coached by former National Hockey League (NHL) defenseman Jim Paek, South Korea was tied with Kazakhstan in points, but won the tiebreaker thanks to its 5-2 victory over the Central Asian nation last Sunday.

It's been an improbable run for a country that lost all five games in a Division I Group A tournament on home ice just three years ago and suffered a demotion to Division I Group B for 2015.

In this photo provided by Hockey Photo, South Korean players pose for pictures after finishing second at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 28, 2017. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by Hockey Photo, South Korean players pose for pictures after finishing second at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 28, 2017. (Yonhap)

South Korea won a Group B event in 2015 over the likes of Britain and Lithuania -- not exactly hockey hotbeds -- to be promoted back up to Group A. South Korea is the only team from that year's Group B event to make it to the top-flight championship.

Paek's impact can't be overstated. The no-nonsense coach, having won two Stanley Cup rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins, took over the struggling program in 2014, and has shed the team of its losing streak while also making concrete on-ice progress.

Early in his tenure, Paek said if there was one thing the South Koreans could do as well as any team, it was skating. And under the coach's guidance, the players have been skating with purpose, using their speed and improved stamina -- Paek has run them into the ground with rigorous off-ice conditioning workouts -- to apply effective forechecking.

And speed is the name of the game in today's hockey, be it in the NHL or in the international setting. The Pittsburgh Penguins skated their way to the Stanley Cup last season and are in contention again this season. Speed is the biggest reason the Toronto Maple Leafs, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, gave the top-seeded Washington Capitals all they could handle in the first round of their Eastern Conference playoffs this month. Every game of the series, which the Capitals won in six, was decided by a goal, with five of those games going into overtime.

Despite the presence of a handful of naturalized Americans or Canadians, South Korea, for the most part, is a smaller team than European opponents. And one of the ways to beat such teams is to rely on speed in every zone. In its first three victories in Ukraine, South Korea did just that.

The team was quick on puck movement and forechecks. Instead of trying to stickhandle their way through defensemen, South Korean forwards often dumped the puck in and used their speed to quickly establish a presence in the offensive zone. Their quick passing and puck support -- both signs of a well-coached team -- gave bigger but slower opponents fits.

In this photo provided by Hockey Photo, South Korean players celebrate their 3-1 victory over Hungary at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 25, 2017. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by Hockey Photo, South Korean players celebrate their 3-1 victory over Hungary at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 25, 2017. (Yonhap)

The first goal in a 3-1 win over Hungary provided the perfect case study. The top line of Kim Ki-sung, Kim Sang-wook and Ahn Jin-hui went buzzing around the net after a quick dump-in. Kim Sang-wook set up below the goal line and shot one toward the net, and then Kim Ki-sung was there to bury the rebound.

The go-ahead goal was also the direct result of superior speed. Shin Sang-hoon broke the 1-1 tie after shooting one off the end boards and beating two defensemen to the puck that caromed out to the right face-off circle. Shin fired a shot from a sharp angle that squeezed past goalie Bence Balizs on the short side.

Speed also helped on defense because South Korea exited the defensive zone quickly before the opponents could get set up.

Whenever that failed, goalie Matt Dalton was sturdy as the last line of defense.

Dalton was pulled after giving up four goals on 17 shots in a 5-0 loss to Austria, but that poor performance turned out to be an aberration. And South Korea never needed him more than it did against Ukraine, as the nervy game went into the shoot-out.

Dalton made 22 saves in regulation and then overtime. In the shoot-out, the Canadian-native stopped Nikita Butsenko and Vitali Lyalka in succession, while two of South Korea's first three shooters scored to clinch the victory and the world championship spot.

In this photo provided by Hockey Photo, South Korean goalie Matt Dalton makes a save against Kazakhstan at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 23, 2017. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by Hockey Photo, South Korean goalie Matt Dalton makes a save against Kazakhstan at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A in Kiev, Ukraine, on April 23, 2017. (Yonhap)

Dalton is one of several North American-born players who have acquired South Korean passports in recent years, as the country hopes to boost its competitiveness for its Olympic debut on home ice at PyeongChang 2018.

But South Korea has been getting balanced production throughout the lineup, rather than relying on players from overseas. Paek believes South Korean-born players have learned from the imports and their experience in North American hockey and developed to a point where they now assume key roles on special teams.

And the team acquitted itself admirably without two key pieces. Forward Mike Testwuide wasn't available for this competition because of a concussion, while defenseman Eric Regan missed the final two games with an orbital fracture suffered against Hungary.

Michael Swift was the lone foreign-born player on offense, but the team's first line featured three homegrown players who paced the offense.

Ahn Jin-hui led the team with five points, while his linemates, brothers Kim Ki-sung and Kim Sang-wook, had four points apiece. Another forward, Shin Sang-hoon, scored the winning goals against Kazakhstan and Hungary, and then got the clinching shoot-out goal against Ukraine to put the icing on the cake.

In other areas, though, South Korea remains a work in progress. It struggled mightily on power plays in Ukraine, going just 1-for-16 with a man advantage. South Korea just couldn't get any flow or rhythm in terms of offensive zone entry, and failed to sustain pressure for any stretch of time.

Cho Min-ho, a shifty forward, played the right point on one of the power-play units. But the team would have been better off using booming shots of rearguards like Regan, Alex Plante and Lee Don-ku from the point more often and looking for tip-ins or rebounds.

Winning more draws in the offensive zone would surely help in that regard. South Korea was in the minus column in the face-off circles in the first three games, and won only 17 of 59 draws against Kazakhstan in particular.

South Korea will need face-off wins and then some in 2018. Before the world championship, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics will present yet another hurdle. South Korea, which received an automatic spot as the host, will face Canada, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, all top-10 nations, in Group A.

The NHL has announced it won't send its players to South Korea, but the Olympic organizers are holding out hopes that the NHL and its players' association will go back to the table and find ways to have the world's best players compete in their sixth straight Winter Games.

NHL or not, Canada will still be a formidable opponent for South Korea. While no one would dare dream of a South Korean victory, the team should still put up a good fight if it keeps progressing at this rate.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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