World Championship Notes
In the end, it was a bit of a shmozzle for Team Russia. Sudnay’s IIHF World Championship gold medal game, a classic match-up between the defending-champion Russians and the Canadian team, petered out in a 6-1 victory for the Canucks, and the final shot count of 37-12 for Canada tells us that the result was fair on the day. Team Russia’s disappointment at the end was bitter and palpable; only Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeny Malkin (scorer of his team’s lone consolation goal in the game), Dmitry Kulikov, and Viktor Tikhonov hung about to hear the Canadian anthem played. It appears, at this point, that there will be consequences for that early departure, too. So what happened, and what should the folks in charge of Russian hockey take away from the games in Prague and Ostrava?
Russia opened the tournament a couple of weeks ago with comfortable victories over Norway (6-2) and Slovenia (5-3, in a game that wasn’t that close), before facing their first major test, against the United States. It was a tight one, with the Americans coming out on top by four goals to two, the last of them scored into an empty Russian net with nine seconds to play. Russia regrouped in time for a tidy 5-2 win over Denmark, then followed that with a 7-0 hammering of Belarus. Next up was Team Slovakia, and they proved to be a handful, with Russia needing an overtime goal from Artemy Panarin to prevail 3-2. The final group game, against Finland, also went to extra time, but this time it was the Finns who won out, taking it 3-2 in a shootout. So Russia ended the group stage at 4-1-1-1, good for third place in Group B behind the U.S.A. and Finland.
On to the medal round then, and a quarterfinal date with Sweden, who had finished second in Group A. It was a thriller — Russia bounded out to a 3-0 lead, only to see the Swedes claw their way back and tie it with five minutes to play in the third. That situation lasted only a few seconds, though, before Malkin restored the Russian lead, and Vladimir Tarasenko’s empty-netter sealed a 5-3 victory and a rematch against the Americans in the semifinal. That game, too, was a great one, as goalies Sergei Bobrovsky and Connor Hellebuyck traded spectacular saves and the score remained 0-0 as the third period reached its halfway point. Finally, Sergei Mozyakin forced a bullet of a wrist shot past Hellebuyck, followed shortly by the 2-0 goal courtesy of Ovechkin, who had just arrived after the Washington Capitals’ elimination from the NHL playoffs. Vadim Shipachyov and Malkin added late tallies, making the final score a somewhat unjust (to Hellebuyck, at least) 4-0. Two difficult victories achieved, and a ticket to the gold medal game.
We know how it ended. Canada led 1-0 after the first period, but the shots were 15-5 at that point, and things got worse from there on in. Three Canadian goals in the first ten minutes of the second frame ended the game as a competitive endeavour, and it was 6-0 by the time Malkin broke Mike Smith’s shutout as the third period wound down. While head coach Oļegs Znaroks had a point when he commented, a tad defensively, that “silver is also a medal,” it was a sad way for Team Russia to wrap up the competition.
In the end, we have to say it was an uneven tournament for the Russians. Some resolute performances, particularly in the quarterfinal and semifinal games, were mixed with some less-impressive outings, culminating of course in the disaster against Canada. There are certainly some questions to be asked of Znaroks, such as why he chose to dress only six defensemen against a Canadian team that was averaging nearly seven goals per game coming into the final match. And had it been me making the decisions, I might have chosen to give Ovechkin, when he arrived, more time with Ilya Kovalchuk and Vladimir Tarasenko and less with Tikhonov and Sergei Plotnikov. No disrespect to those latter two names, but still. Znaroks is a good coach, and I don’t believe that he should lose his job — CSKA Moscow’s Dmitry Kvartalnov will be among the prime candidates to replace him if that does happen — but there were some odd tactical choices here.
As far as Russia’s overall team selection is concerned, it is hard to see any real glaring errors, at least without falling into hindsight bias. Certainly, Alexander Radulov was missed, as he was coming off probably the finest season in his career. But the effect of a year’s worth of nagging injuries was the culprit in his exclusion, rather than faulty judgement by the team brass. Similar misfortune cost the team the services of Danis Zaripov in the very first game, against Norway — he would have been a potent addition to the duo of Mozyakin and Malkin as the tournament went on.
One thing that the Russian Hockey Federation does need to think about in the coming months and years is the state of the team’s defensive corps. This is far from a golden age for Russian blueliners, although the group selected for this month’s tournament acquitted itself decently enough, allowing the fifth-fewest shots against per game (22.4) of the 16 teams. There is help on the way, too; CSKA Moscow’s 23-year-old Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the World Championship due to injury, is a genuine star in the making, and other youngsters such as Nikita Tryamkin (Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg), Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo Sabres), and Nikita Nesterov (Tampa Bay Lightning) are bubbling under nicely. For a non-Nikita option, we might mention Ivan Provorov, currently making his way with Brandon Wheat Kings of the WHL, and certain to be a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft. The problem, however, is quantity. There are simply not enough five-star prospects coming up through the various youth systems, and that lack must be remedied, the sooner the better. As regards the 2015 team, the addition of another wise old defensive noggin such as Ilya Nikulin’s might have helped a bit on Sunday, but as noted, the group selected was not terrible overall.
Still on the subject of player selection, there is one thing that needs dealing with. It seems that every time the Russian national team stumbles in international play, the notion crops up that over-reliance on players from the KHL is to blame (this is not an idea, by the way, restricted to North American analysts). It simply is not the case, or at least it wasn’t this time (KHL players weren’t the problem at Sochi either, but that’s another whole discussion). At this year’s World Championship, Metallurg Magnitogorsk’s Mozyakin tied for third in the tournament in points and fourth in goals, leading the Russian team with a line of 10 gp, 6-6-12. The SKA St. Petersburg trio of Yevgeny Dadonov, Panarin, and Shipachyov (the second of those names having been recently signed by the Chicago Blackhawks) were second, fourth, and fifth on the team in points respectively. The only NHLer in the top five was Malkin. Now, the Russian team would very likely have welcomed NHLers like Nikita Kucherov and Nail Yakupov, but those players were unavailable due to either deep playoff runs or injury, rather than overlooked in favour of guys from the domestic league. Nobody should suggest that the KHL is superior or even equal to the NHL in overall quality, but it does possess a fair number of players who would not be at all out of place on the North American circuit. Reflexively blaming the KHL when things go wrong for the Russian national team is simply facile, and I wish people would stop doing it.
Anyway, enough of that. The big reason for Team Russia’s failure to win the gold medal at this World Championship was, in fact, the opposition in the final. Team Canada thoroughly dominated this tournament, in a way that it has not done in more than half a century. The Canadians won all ten games in regulation, outscoring the opposition 66-15 in the process. They were the only team in the tournament to reach a double-digit score in a single game, and they did that twice. Malkin’s late tally when the gold medal was already decided was the first goal the Canadians had given up in the medal round — I could go on, but you get the idea. It was a magnificent performance, one deserving of any and all accolades.
Next year’s tournament will be held in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so the pressure will not be off of Mr. Znaroks, or his superiors, any time soon. It is certain that the powers that be in Russian hockey will want to do a full post mortem on this year’s competition, to ensure at least that Sunday’s result is less likely to be repeated. However, it should also be borne in mind that Team Russia was one of the last two teams standing from a field of 16. Ignoring the debacle against Canada would certainly be a mistake for the Russian hockey high-ups, but it must be said that over-reacting to it might be an even more grievous error. It should be fascinating to see what comes of this!