The Super Series Comes to Town
Thursday night was Super Series night in Peterborough, Ontario, with the junior Russian Selects in town to face the OHL’s best! As such, it was a chance for me to run the eye over some players about whom I have heard and read a great deal, but seldom had the chance to sit and watch, and had not yet ever seen in person. So, below the jump, some impressions of the evening’s doings at the Memorial Centre!
The Subway Super Series got its start back in 2003, featuring games between Russia’s junior squad and all-star teams from each of the three circuits that collectively make up the Canadian Hockey League. So far the Canadian kids have had the upper hand; prior to Thursday, the CHLers had won 46 Super Series games while losing only 19 times. Furthermore, Russia had captured the annual series itself only twice, albeit recently — in 2010 and 2012. This year, however, it has been a different story. Team Russia had won both games against the WHL all-stars, one of them via the shootout, and carried a commanding 5-1 lead in points into the game in Peterborough (the Super Series uses the 3-2-1-0 point system).
In many ways, Thursday night’s contest looked a lot like the USSR-Canada get-togethers in days of yore. The North Americans relied on size and physicality to try to wear down their opponents, while Team Russia looked to skill, particularly in the passing game. For the opening 20 minutes, at any rate, the OHL’s size told — the Ontarians dominated the frame, helped in part by a couple of early Russian penalties. At the first intermission, the shot count stood at 13-4 for the OHL, but, rather crucially, the score was 0-0, thanks in large part to the efforts of Igor Shestyorkin in the Russian net. Shestyorkin is the kid called up last year by Spartak Moscow when their financial problems took hold, so even at the tender age of 18 he has some KHL games under his belt. He was not, understandably, particularly good in the KHL, but once he returned to the junior ranks, he led Spartak’s youngsters to the MHL championship, posting a .937 save percentage in 19 playoff games and persuading the New York Rangers to spend a 4th-round draft pick on him in June. Shestyorkin moved to the SKA St. Petersburg organization in the off-season, and has split time between the minor pro VHL and the MHL this season, playing superbly in both. He was excellent on Thursday night as well, and the fact that Russia escaped the first period unscathed was almost entirely down to him.
Having been given a second chance by their goalies, the Russian kids duly took advantage. The second period was less than three minutes old when the visitors took the lead on about as nice a passing play as you could expect. Little Nikita Shatsky, from the Vityaz Moscow Oblast program, rushed the puck into the OHL end before passing off to his line-mate, Sergei Tolchinsky of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. On the left side, Sibir Novosibirsk’s Konstantin Okulov cruised past a momentarily confused Ontarian defense, and Tolchinsky found him with a wonderful tape-to-tape pass through the narrowest of seams. The finish was as good as the set-up; Okulov one-timed the puck out of the air past the Mississauga Steelheads’ Spencer Martin, and it was 1-0 for the Russians.
The goal did not seem to dis-spirit the OHL players; they continued to press, and Shestyorking continued to do his thing. Just past the halfway point of the period, however, Russia increased her advantage, this time on the powerplay. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and Calgary Flames defense prospect Rushan Rafikov let go a slapshot from his station at the point, and it made its way through traffic in front before eluding Martin.
At this point, the wind did seem to come out of the OHL sails to a certain degree. The Russian youngsters began to generate sustained pressure of their own, the OHL defenders began to get out of position, and it took only a couple of minutes for the Shatsky-Tolchinsky-Okulov line to strike again. And once again it was a nice pass from Tolchinsky, who found Shatsky in the slot all by his lonesome. The defensive breakdown was punished, as Shatsky whipped a wrist-shot off Martin’s blocker and in to make it 3-0. With the way Shestyorkin was playing, that was probably checkmate, and it showed. With Russia back on the powerplay once again, late in the 2nd, they made the lead four. This time, it was Dmitry Yudin of SKA who made the nice pass, finding the lurking figure of Dynamo Moscow’s Vladimir Lyukvin at the back door for the extra insurance goal.
With the game now pretty much decided, the third period was a non-event. Shestyorkin did the necessary work to maintain his shutout, and his team-mates seemed content to fend off the demoralized OHLers and look ahead to Monday’s re-match in Kingston. Some bad temper crept into the game, unsurprisingly given the score, as Guelph’s Ben Harpur got an early shower for checking to the head. After a couple of scrums in the last few minutes of the game, it all ended 4-0, and the Russians have now taken eight points of a possible nine from this year’s Series. Highlights of the game can be seen here, and are worth it for Russia’s opening goal alone.
It would be a mistake to read too much into three games, especially featuring teams of guys who do not usually play together. However, after Thursday night’s result, junior hockey administrators on the Russian side must be feeling very pleased. The MHL does not get much credit in North America as a league, but, Tolchinsky aside, it was players from that circuit who did most of the damage against the OHL. And Team Russia was full value for its victory, even if the ice was tilted against them for much of the first half of the game. The Russian kids weathered the storm, and when they got things turned around, their opponents had no answer. Full credit to Igor Shestyorkin for his heroics, and Head Coach Valery Bragin deserves at least a passing mention as well!
An interesting evening of hockey, and it will fun to see how the rest of the Series goes! The two teams meet again on Monday, as mentioned, with the two games between Russia and the QMJHL to follow.