Coming into the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, Stepan Falkovsky was about the only Belarusian player known to the international ice hockey community as he currently suits up for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. There, the 19 year old sports seven goals, 22 points, and a +11 rating in 37 games in his first season of North American play. Despite a 6’7” and 225-pound frame that he doesn’t shy away from using, Falkovsky plays a rangy game and seems very adept at making solid first passes or firing the puck from the point
One almost needed to make a double-take when seeing Falkovsky’s WJC defense partner Vladislav Goncharov, the team’s captain, on the ice. Only 5’6” and 154 pounds, Goncharov wows you more through his well thought out and properly timed passes. Despite the tiny frame, he is not the least bit afraid to throw checks and has shown keen on-ice vision in both patrolling and firing shots from the blueline as well as making the first solid pass out of his zone. He has six goals and 16 points in 28 games for the Dinamo U20 project, which plays in the Belarus 1st men’s division.
For both defensemen, it was obvious at the WJC tournament that they often seek KHL forward Dmitri Buinitsky, who collected two points, a +2 rating, and 27 penalty minutes thus far this season. For the 2016 WJC, the speedy winger managed to collect two goals accompanied by a -8 rating as Belarus bowed out with a relegation round loss to Switzerland. They each took the opportunity to share some of their thoughts on the event and experience.
Hockey’s Future: How did you enjoy this WJC in Helsinki?
Buinitsky: The level of play is very high and challenging. This is a good test and shows me where my teammates and I are at in our development. The games have been a lot of fun, even if we’ve hoped for better results.
Falkovsky: The level of hockey has been great. We need to test ourselves against the best and that is exactly what we’ve done here.
HF: Were you satisfied with Belarus’ play in light of the outsider role the country has?
Buinitsky: We are here and are playing at the highest level possible. All of our opponents are the best possible and play at a high level that we aren’t necessarily used to. They are high quality. We are just trying to show that we can play along and battle them… that we belong here. It’s basically all that we can do and we have to hope that we can cause an upset at some point.
Falkovsky: We needed more offense. At this level, we have a long way to go in that department.
HF: What were some of your challenges?
Goncharov: There was just so little time to look and you’ve gotta make decisions so quickly. At the same time, we were trying to play like a team and make use of the chemistry we’ve built up this fall. We needed to show and build on our character in order to be halfway successful against players with this level of skill and experience.
HF: How special was the game against Russia, your neighbor?
Buinitsky: When we play with such a highly skilled team, we always want to show our best. At the same time, we see what we can learn from them. It’s always a joy and a new experience with such talented players.
Falkovsky: I actually felt the game against the Czech Republic was a lot more special. That had significance and we played the way we truly are capable of. That will remain my best hockey memory from this tournament.
HF: Dmitri, you’re playing KHL hockey and you probably recognized some of those players on Team Russia. How is your season going back home and what have you been learning from the pro game?
Buinitsky: It’s really interesting to see how exactly those players present themselves here at the WJC in comparison to their play in the KHL, where they usually have much different roles. My season back home is a learning experience and I’m there for the future. I can only give my best to help now, but a bigger role will be expected in the future.
HF: Vladislav, you’re one of the smallest players in the whole tournament, yet you captain your team and are on the ice for all situations. What are some of the challenges you face in general and in particular with the competition at this tournament?
Goncharov: Surely there are times in which my size is a disadvantage. It’s something I’ve always dealt with and have had to adjust to. Then again, my size allows me to be more nimble and agile. I’ve developed my skills and ability to recognize holes and opportunities, because this is how I’ve always had to survive. You learn quick being the smaller guy growing up. I’ve always tried to play quicker than bigger players. I’ve needed to be quicker on my skates and think ahead. I’ve needed to move the puck quicker and with more authority.
HF: There have been some terrific, smaller defensemen in the course of time. Are any perhaps your favorite and someone you like to model your game after?
Goncharov and Buinitsky: Actually, for both of us, our favorite player is Jaromir Jagr. He’s a legend and the things he’s done and continues to do at his age are nothing short of amazing.
HF: Stepan, you’re just the opposite of your partner Vladislav in that you’re now one of the biggest players at this tournament. You’ve made the step over to Canada to play for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. How is that experience for you?`
Falkovsky: It’s an adjustment, but things are going very ok. The team has shown patience and respected how much adjustment I’ve needed with the language and playing style. My teammates have helped me out. Things are going fine.
HF: What will look to improve on when you return to Ottawa soon?
Falkovsky: I have to get the puck to the goal more. I have to look to create more pressure from the blueline and actually finds ways to get that puck on net.
HF: At this juncture, you do have seven goals, 17 points, and a plus rating. You’ve also displayed a fine transition game at this tournament, often making a nifty first pass out of your defensive zone. Do you not describe yourself to be a bit of an offensive defenseman?
Falkovsky: Actually, I see myself as a defensive defenseman. I try to pay close attention to all the details in my own zone. The speed of oncoming forwards. The puck movement in and out of the corners. My positioning between the attackers and my own goaltender. This is what I concentrate and work on the most. I am after all a defenseman and my size gives me certain advantages in playing this position.
HF: Do all of you know where you’ll be playing next season?
Buinitsky: We will see after this season. Time will tell.
Goncharov: Same for me.
Falkovsky: I have taken the step to Canada. I’ve done this with the hope of getting noticed, liked, and drafted. I want to play in the NHL one day. That is what I’m hoping for in the future. I am concentrating on that here and now. I still have a lot to learn in North America.
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