By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) -- Ahead of its first appearance in the men's top world hockey championship in Denmark this month, South Korea set out a seemingly modest goal: to stay alive.
But South Korea failed miserably, largely because the players couldn't stay disciplined, and there was nothing special about their special teams.
The 18th-ranked team, coached by former National Hockey League (NHL) defenseman Jim Paek, bowed out of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship with seven losses in seven games in Group B. The final blow came in the form of a 3-0 loss to world No. 9 Norway in a do-or-die game Monday.
The 16 participants were divided into two groups of eight, and the two worst teams in each group -- Belarus being the victim in Group A -- got relegated to the second-tier event, Division I Group A, for 2019. South Korea earned a promotion to the top event after finishing runner-up in Division I Group A last year but will be back to trying to get the promotion again next year.
The final tallies were staggering and not in a good way. In its seven losses, South Korea was outscored by 48-4. It gave up 290 shots on goal but managed only 120. South Korea had the lowest world ranking position in the tournament, and it showed on the stat sheets.
Since the current relegation system was put in place in 2012, South Korea has been the most overmatched team. No country had scored fewer or allowed more goals.
Perhaps avoiding last place in a group that featured four of the top-seven countries in the world rankings -- Canada, Finland, the United States and Germany -- wasn't ever going to be easy. And though South Korean players might have been buoyed by their solid showing at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on home ice three months ago, they had to know they were going up against far superior competition at the world championship.
No NHL players competed at the Olympics because the league refused to release them and halt the regular season play. But there were no such restrictions at the worlds, where Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid, the two-time scoring champion and the 2017 Hart Memorial Trophy winner as the regular season MVP, headlined the list of star players.
And South Korea ran into them at almost every turn. First, it was the Carolina Hurricanes' duo of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, who combined for three goals and five assists in Finland's 8-1 win over South Korea in their first group game. Then it was McDavid and Co. from Canada. The centerman had an almost ho-hum three-point game and was one of five Canadians to register three points in Canada's 10-0 rout of South Korea.
The Americans threw Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane and Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau at South Korea, en route to a 13-1 victory.
And facing more talented and skilled players night in and night out had a devastating side effect. Because South Korean players almost always found themselves chasing these opponents, their errant sticks usually moved and reacted before their bodies could. This led to a series of hooking, tripping and high sticking penalties.
South Korea led the tournament with 47 minor penalties. They were short-handed a tournament-high 45 times and allowed 17 power play goals, also the most in the competition. Paek was often caught on TV cameras wearing an exasperated look on his face.
There were some frustration penalties in dying moments of blowout losses. And there were also untimely, momentum-killing penalties -- not that there is any good time to take one -- that led to the opponents' power-play goals.
On Monday, Norway's third and final goal came at 10:02 in the third period, after defenseman Bryan Young got called for a delay of game after clearing the puck over the glass. Against Denmark last Saturday, South Korea was keeping things close, down just 2-1 with 4:10 left in the game, when Brock Radunske took an interference penalty. Denmark scored 45 seconds into the ensuing power play to dash any South Korean hopes of a comeback.
South Korea took three too-many-men penalties, including one against Norway, due to a bad line change. That's an inexcusable mishap in a game South Korea had to win to stay in the top division.
When a team kills too many penalties, it forces skilled players who aren't on penalty-killing units to remain on the bench for extended stretches. The effect is particularly devastating for an underdog like South Korea, which can ill afford to spend a third of the game killing off penalties against teams armed with offensive weapons.
In a further illustration of inept special teams, South Korea allowed a tournament-worst four short-handed goals. On power plays, South Korea managed just two goals out of 17 chances.
South Korea's maddening inability to build any semblance of offensive momentum started in the face-off circles.
The team had an inauspicious beginning in that department, winning just 18 out of 52 face-offs in the opening game against Finland.
It lost 39 out of 52 draws against Canada. In the finale against Norway, South Korea lost 14 straight face-offs at one point in the second period and won only 18 out of 58 for the game.
Before the tournament, Paek spoke about the importance of staying in the top division for the development of South Korean hockey.
"We have to stay (in the top division) to continue our development. That's our goal," Paek told Yonhap News Agency then. "To play at a high level, you have to challenge yourselves in order to get better. This is an opportunity to keep doing that."
On Paek's watch, South Korea has been steadily climbing up the IIHF ladder. It was relegated to Division I Group B in 2014, just before Paek took over, and was promoted right back up to Division I Group A. Then came the first promotion to the top division in 2017.
The relegation this year represents a major setback for Paek's team, which will also have to undergo what could be a painful transitional period.
The government here has fast-tracked a half-dozen Canadian-born players to South Korean citizenship, and only one, defenseman Alex Plante, will be under 30 by the end of this month.
Radunske, the first in the group to be naturalized, has previously said he'll retire from international play after this year's world championship. He's 35 with a history of injuries. Goalie Matt Dalton, one of the biggest reasons South Korea qualified for the top world championship, made some brilliant saves as he often does, but was otherwise ill-equipped to deal with such a barrage of shots on a nightly basis. Dalton was pulled twice at the world championship. He'll be 32 this summer.
Some key South Korean forwards may also have had their best days. Captain Park Woo-sang is a hard-working but lead-footed checking line center who will be 33 by the end of May. Kim Ki-sung and Kim Sang-wook, brothers who play on the top line, are both over 30. Cho Min-ho, another skilled forward, is 31.
These veterans likely won't be around when South Korea begins its qualifying process for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The country played at the PyeongChang Olympics as the host nation and has never qualified for any of the previous Winter Games.
And given the shallow Korean hockey talent pool, there's an obvious lack of high-impact prospects with upside. Among younger players who got a chance to play in Denmark this month, only the 21-year-old forward Lee Chong-hyun showed some promise.
After sitting out the first three games, Lee got some first-line minutes alongside the Kim brothers, and displayed the kind of speed and hands that could make him a scoring threat down the road.
But it doesn't exactly bode well for the program's future when it's pinning its hopes on an unproven skater.
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