IIHF World Championships Div 1B Belfast April 2017
Lithuania goalie leads new generation
Artur Pavliukov is still only 20 - but he's in fine form for Lithuania in Belfast. He tells us about his hockey travels and his country's inspirational captain.
Two games played, two wins, no goals conceded. Things are looking highly promising for a young Lithuanian team looking to get among the medals for the third season running.
Goalie Artur Pavliukov, aged just 20, has been a big part of that roster. In those victories over Estonia and the Netherlands he’s turned away 30 shots to provide the platform for his country’s winning start. It’s turning into a fine conclusion to a long and sometimes complicated season for the Lake Tahoe Icemen netminder.
The 2016-17 campaign saw Pavliukov head to North America for the first time in his career. Whatever expectations he had when he flew across the Atlantic, the subsequent year brought far more than he anticipated.
“It’s definitely been different for me this season – I went to four different clubs!” he said. That journey began in the NAHL with Coulee Region Chill, then took in a short stint at La Crosse Freeze in NA3HL. Next came WSHL hockey with the El Paso Rhinos in regular season before finally arriving in Lake Tahoe for the playoffs. “It feels like I travelled through the whole of the US.”
While the schedule was sometimes difficult, the experience was valuable. “It’s a different kind of hockey there,” Pavliukov said. “The rinks are much smaller so as a goalie you know you’ll face a lot of shots. I’m sure that I’m developing a lot better as a player for being in North America.”
Player development is a big issue for Lithuania, with opportunities at home very limited. In the words of head coach Bernd Haake, any young player wanting to achieve a high standard has no option but to leave the country and seek a chance elsewhere. The roster in Belfast offers a roll-call of Europe's mid-ranking leagues. Fortunately, that pressure to travel and explore the hockey-playing world is something that Pavliukov has always relished.
“I’ve been travelling for my hockey since I was about 14,” he said, reflecting on seasons spent playing in the Belarusian and Latvian league systems and representing his country at u18, u20 and senior level in World Championships and Olympic Qualifiers. “This was the first time I went so far from home, but it wasn’t all that difficult to adjust. Luckily, I really like to travel, I love seeing new places so it was kind of an adventure.”
Belfast is a new stop on that voyage, and Pavliukov hopes that the final destination might prove to be promotion. Lithuania has medalled in the last two World Championships and picked up wins against the likes of Great Britain and Ukraine along the way. The young goalie was part of the team that claimed bronze in Zagreb 12 months ago before helping the under-20s win Division 2A in Tallinn earlier this season. Now he is eager to grab more hardware here despite icing the youngster roster in the group with an average age of 24.
“It’s not that we are a young team, I think it’s a balance between youngsters and veteran players,” he said. “We have good speed all over the ice, and that gives us a good chance to compete for medals. In a competition like this, any team has a chance of promotion. It’s a matter of conditioning, of coaching, of getting it all together. Whoever gets it right this week will win the tournament.”
Part of the reason for Lithuania’s rock-solid rearguard thus far has been the calming presence of captain Mindaugas Kieras. On a youthful roster, his 19 World Championship campaigns makes him an example for others to follow as the Baltic nation looks to move from one generation to the next.
“He’s a great guy in the locker room and he’s like the bridge between us young players and the coaches. He helps everyone, the young guys and even the other veterans. We love having him around.”
That blend of experience and youth faces its latest test against Great Britain on Wednesday evening - the start of what coach Haake describes as a series of meetings with the 'big teams' in Division IB. And with Pavliukov in red-hot form, there's every reason for the Baltic nation to hope to upset the host nation and blow the promotion race wide open.