Weekly Russian Hockey News Notes: January 11th, 2016
Time for another edition of the news notes! We will check in with how the U18 women’s team is doing in Ontario, revisit Ovechkin’s big night, and discuss a couple of interesting coaching moves in the KHL. However, there were also some tidings of the sad sort — read on, but be warned.
We start this one, unfortunately, with some tragic news from the VHL, the second-tier professional league in Russia. Sputnik Nizhny Tagil are mourning the death of 23-year-old forward Sergei Simonov, who passed away on January 7th of a ruptured spleen sustained during a team practice. Simonov was the second VHLer to die after a training incident in the last 18 months; Yermak Angarsk defenseman Artyom Sokolov suffered fatal sunstroke during a pre-season cross-country run in July of 2014.
The official response to Simonov’s death was not slow in coming. The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for Sverdlovsk Oblast has opened a criminal negligence investigation, seeking to determine whether Simonov received timely medical care. And, per Aivis Kalniņš on Twitter, the KHL, which governs the operation of the VHL, is looking to implement stricter guidelines on the availability of emergency medical services at both games and practices.
Simonov was a native of Novokuznetsk, and came up through Metallurg’s youth system, appearing in three KHL games for them in the 2010-11 season. Since then, he had spent most of his time with several different teams in the VHL, and also had a couple of brief stints in the Kazakh League. He began the 2015-16 campaign playing for VHL side Kristall Saratov, joining Sputnik in mid-season and playing only six games for them prior to his untimely death. Sincere condolences to his family, friends, team-mates, and fans.
On to happier matters. The IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship (I previewed the Russian team here last week) is through its group stage in St. Catharines, Ontario, and the quarterfinal matchups are set. Russia, who finished third in Group A, will face Group B runners-up Finland, while the Czech Republic, fourth in Group A, will take on the Swedes, who won Group B. Both those games will take place on Tuesday. Canada and USA, meanwhile, have byes to the semifinals, to be played on Thursday.
Russia opened the tournament with a 5-2 loss to Canada, Fanuza Kadirova and Yelizaveta Zenchenko recording the Russian tallies. While that score would appear to be a step back from the 3-2 and 3-1 thrillers between the two countries at the 2015 tournament, it was in fact probably a closer game; the shots stayed relatively tight throughout, and ended up favouring Canada by only 20-18. The young Russians’ second outing, against the U.S., was not so close: they were beaten 6-0, and outshot 40-11. That meant that Monday’s game against the Czechs would decide third and fourth place in the group, and it was Russia who came out on top. Two goals from Kadirova and another from Yelena Vodopyanova staked Team Russia to a 3-0 lead, and they then withstood a furious Czech comeback attempt to win it by a final of 3-2. On to the quarterfinals, and the Finns.
Predictably enough, Kadirova has been at the centre of things for Russia, scoring three of her country’s five goals so far and assisting on another. She has also drawn rave reviews for her overall play; IIHF writer Andrew Podnieks described her performance against the Czechs as “sensational.” Up-and-coming phenom Darya Beloglazova, for her part, has two assists in the tournament — not bad at all for a fifteen-year-old. One final note: the match against the United States was the 11th Under-18 World Championship game for goalie Valeriya Tarakanova, breaking the record for most appearances by a netminder at the tournament.
The Championship will be decided on Friday, and we will have a wrap-up post here thereafter!
Turning now to the domestic game in Russia, but sticking with the theme of young players breaking records, an all-time mark fell in the junior MHL this past week. Forward Viktor Shakhvorostov of Irbis Kazan (junior team of the KHL’s Ak Bars club) stole the puck off the opening faceoff against Sarmaty Orenburg, strode into the offensive zone, and wristed home the fastest goal from the start of a game ever recorded in any hockey match at any level anywhere. It was officially timed at 3.04 seconds, and we have video:
Irbis, for the record, went on to win the game 5-0, and Shakhvorostov recorded another speedy goal: he scored 23 seconds into the third period. Sarmaty, a new club in the MHL this season, got some revenge with a 3-1 victory the next day. Both teams are scrapping for the final playoff spot in the MHL’s Volga Division.
In the KHL, the playoff races are starting to take shape — we’ll set the scene for the home stretch once the All-Star game on January 23rd has been played. The player transfer deadline is now a couple of weeks behind us, so teams are more-or-less set in their rosters. However, coaches can still be fired (and hired), and Dinamo Riga this week made a change behind their bench. Out is Kari Heikkilä, hired as Head Coach just this past summer, and assistant Raimo Helminen is gone with him. For poor Helminen, this is the second time he’s lost a job this season: he began the campaign assisting at Barys Astana, but was let go from the Kazakh side in September. Dinamo General Manager Normunds Sējējs will add do double-duty as replacement Head Coach, at least for now.
The reason for the dismissals is not hard to see: Dinamo, with a record of 19-27 on the season, are in the 12th place in the West Conference, 16 points adrift of the last playoff spot. With only 14 games left, that’s a lot of ground to make up, even with three points for a win. While Dinamo’s expectations for the season were always going to be somewhat modest — their participation in the 2015-16 season was in until well into the off-season — but even so, it has been a disappointing run, and Heikkilä has now paid for that with his job.
Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg have also been going through trying times, recently. They came into the season having made the post-season in back-to-back campaigns after recovering from serious financial difficulties. And early in 2015-16, they appeared to have taken the next stop, as they flirted with top spot in the East Conference. But a ghastly 2-10 run going back to late November has not only ended any hopes of top seeding, it looks like it may have pushed Avtomobilist right out of the playoffs; they now sit ninth in the east, four points behind Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and the last ticket to the second season. That’s the sort of collapse that gets coaches fired, and so it was no surprise this week to see Avtomobilist take action with regards to first-year bench boss Andrei Razin. What was unusual was the action taken — instead of firing Razin, the Avtomobilist brass suspended him for one game, with GM Dmitry Popov taking the reins for Saturday’s game against Severstal Cherepovets.
An interesting move, and I can’t recall another team ever suspending a coach because of poor on-ice performance. In any case, it did not really work in this case, or at least it hasn’t yet; Avtomobilist were shut out 2-0 by Severstal. Razin was back in charge for Monday’s game against CSKA Moscow, and, while the result was another defeat for the Yekaterinburg side, the presumably now-chastened coach and his crew did earn themselves a point by taking things to a shootout against the KHL’s top team.
2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of “puck” hockey in the Soviet Union, and teams are busy marking the occasion in various ways. “Retro” uniforms have put in an appearance at a number of teams; Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, CSKA, and others have been turning back the sartorial clock, and it is great fun, at least in my opinion, to see the old outfits in action once again (links are to pictures thereof).
Clubs are also taking the opportunity, moreso than normal, to honour veterans of their recent or distant histories with sweater-retirement ceremonies (we have mentioned a few of those in various editions of the news notes). And one such ceremony was held on Monday at Spartak Moscow, who were hosting Slovan Bratislava. Spartak honoured 1970s-era team netminder Viktor Krivolapov, raising his number 20 sweater to the rafters at the team’s traditional Sokolniki Arena home (Spartak are playing much of this season out of the Luzhniki Small Sports Arena, but have been returning to the Sokolniki for such occasions). Sadly, Spartak could not give their former goalie a win on his big day; the Slovak visitors took it 4-0.
Now to the NHL, where Alexander Ovechkin on Sunday became the first Russian player to score 500 regular-season goals in the league. It was a vintage Ovechkin goal, too: a screamer of a shot from the circle to the goalie’s right, whence he has scored so many. Later in the game, he added number 501, and it — as the announcer described — was a gem (number 499, one game earlier? May have been the best of the three).
Rob Vollman, at nhl.com, has done some interesting work breaking down Ovechkin’s goal-scoring: opposing goalies, assisting team-mates, and the like. Of particular note are the comparisons, adjusted for era, between “Ovi” and some of the great goal-scorers of the past. I encourage you to check out the article for yourself, but, to make a long story story short, Ovechkin is probably one of the two or three best pure goal-scorers the game has ever seen.
And so at last to the regular update on our little team of players whom we’ve been tracking this season:
G Juha Metsola (Amur Khabarovsk): 42 gp, 2.07 GAA, .929 sv%. Metsola has played in 42 of Amur’s 50 games this season, so he was given the week off while his backup, Alexander Pechursky, got some work in.
D Ziyat Paigin (HK Sochi): 34 gp, 6-14-20, +5, 6 PiM, 16:41 TOI/gm. A goal and an assist in two games for one of this season’s breakout players this week, and he’s now playing more than 20 minutes per game regularly. Sochi should make the playoffs easily, and Paigin has honestly been a big part of that.
D Nikita Zaitsev (CSKA Moscow): 38 gp, 6-17-23, +20, 16 PiM, 20:49 TOI/gm. He didn’t make the trip to Yekaterinburg for Monday’s game against Avtomobilist, and that’s a concern. If he’s hurt, it would be a big blow for CSKA.
F Nikolai Prokhorkin (Salavat Yulaev Ufa): 46 gp, 16-15-31, +8, 56 PiM, 16:43 TOI/gm. Seven points in his last four games earned Prokhorkin “Forward of the Week” honours in the KHL this time around. He’s forging a nice partnership with Finnish forward Teemu Hartikainen.
F Olli Palola (Vityaz Moscow Oblast): 27 gp, 1-4-5, -8, 10 PiM, 13:42 TOI/gm. He still hasn’t played a game since December 9th, due to injury, and must be desperately looking forward to the end of the season at this point.
F Sergei Mozyakin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk): 48 gp, 29-33-62, +16, 0 PiM: 21:11 TOI/gm. No goals in two games for Mozyakin this week, who will have his work cut out for him to break Steve Moses’ goals in a season record of 36. That’s ok though, Mozyakin had five assists in those two games, and now leads the KHL scoring race by 12 points.
And that’s about all the news for this week! More news notes next Monday, and as mentioned there will be a write-up of the women’s U18 tournament once it’s over. And it’s probably about time we took another look back at an early season of Soviet hockey… Thank you for reading!