South Korea will be looking for a quick start at the men's hockey world championship opening in Ukraine this weekend.
Coached by former National Hockey League defenseman Jim Paek, South Korea will compete in the April 22-28 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship Division I Group A, which is the second-highest level of men's international hockey.
All games will be held in Kiev.
It's a key test tournament for South Korea ahead of its Olympic debut on home ice next year at the PyeongChang Winter Games. South Korea earned a spot as the host, and will face world No. 1 Canada, along with the Czech Republic and Switzerland.
|South Korean men's hockey players listen to their coaches during a friendly game against Russia at Gangneung Hockey Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province. (Yonhap)|
In Kiev, the No. 23-ranked South Korea will face Kazakhstan (No. 16), Austria (No. 17), Hungary (No. 19), Poland (No. 20) and Ukraine (No. 22) in the round-robin play. The top two nations will be promoted to the top-flight IIHF World Championship next year, while the worst team will drop to Division I Group B in 2018.
In last year's Division I Group A tournament, South Korea finished fifth among six nations with seven points on two wins, two losses and one overtime loss. It was the country's best showing at the world championship.
South Korea is hoping to do better this time, and getting the first win right out of the gate will be crucial.
The first game is against Poland on Saturday. South Korea has three wins and five losses all time against the European nation.
But the most recent victory came at last year's Division I Group A competition, as forward Michael Swift's hat trick lifted South Korea to a 4-1 win.
South Korea has had trouble getting off to a fast start in tournament play. Coaches and players have spoken about an intimidation factor, and how facing unfamiliar opponents has made some players more passive than usual.
There will be little time to feel intimidated and shrink in Kiev, because it won't get any easier for South Korea after Poland.
Its next two opponents will be Kazakhstan on Sunday, and Hungary next Tuesday, the two countries that were relegated from the top division last year.
South Korea was shut out by Kazakhstan 4-0 at the Sapporo Asian Winter Games in February, despite the Central Asian nation not sending all of its best skaters.
Joining Kazakhstan will be Canadian-born forward Martin St. Pierre, a naturalized Kazakhstan citizen who has played for four different NHL clubs.
Two other former NHLers from Canada -- Dustin Boyd and Nigel Dawes -- will also suit up for Kazakhstan this time.
South Korea has lost 12 times to Hungary in 15 meetings while picking up two wins and a tie. At the 2014 Division I Group A tournament, South Korea fell 7-4. It was the countries' last meeting when each had its best players available.
South Korea will send a handful of North American-born athletes -- No. 1 goalie Matt Dalton; defensemen Eric Regan, Alex Plante and Bryan Young; and forward Michael Swift.
US-born forward Mike Testwuide will miss the tournament with a concussion. South Korea will miss his big presence up front, and will count on shifty forwards Kim Ki-sung and Shin Sang-hoon to pick up the slack.
South Korea had encouraging performances against world No. 2 Russia in friendly games last month, losing 4-3 and 5-2 despite missing some key pieces. (Yonhap)