Difficult Circumstances: Russia at the U18s
The rather remarkable story of Team Russia at the 2016 IIHF Under-18 World Championship came to an end this past Thursday, when the Russian youngsters went down 4-3 to Finland in the quarterfinal round. It was, in fact, an entirely reasonable result for this largely under-aged group, which found out only days before the opening faceoff that they were to attend to the tournament at all. Read on, and we will take a look back at the U18 Worlds, and at what happened to Team Russia in North Dakota!
We know the tale well by now; the Russian Under-18 national team, which had spent the 2015-16 season preparing for this tournament by playing as a club in Russia’s top junior league, was stood down at almost the last possible minute over fears that a number of the players would test positive for meldonium. In its place, the Russian Hockey Federation sent the bulk of the country’s Under-17 team, reinforced with a few U18-aged players who were playing in North America. Questions abounded, with one of the big ones being: could the makeshift squad even compete with the rest of the world’s U18s, or would youth and lack of preparation time lead to an embarrassing result?
Early omens were not good, despite an pre-tournament exhibition victory over Slovakia. Russia opened the Worlds officially against the United States, and came out on the wrong end of an 8-2 hiding (the shots on goal favoured the Americans by 45-21). It was a bad third period that did in the Russian team, as score stood at only 4-2 for the hosts after 40 minutes. However, that mitigating factor aside, it was not the start that coach Sergei Golubovich would have hoped for.
Fortunately, that was about as bad as it got. Team Russia recovered nicely for Game 2, as Dynamo Moscow prospect Pavel Dyomin scored in overtime to secure a 2-1 victory over Switzerland. It was an important psychological moment for the young Russians; the Swiss had dismissed the “actual” Russian U18 team from last year’s tournament with a 5-0 quarterfinal victory. And Russia followed that up by out-shooting Latvia 46-20, and outscoring them 7-0, in Game 3. Another Dynamo up-and-comer, Mikhail Bitsadze, scored a pair in that one, as did Maxim Marushev of Ak Bars Kazan. The positive momentum ended there, however; Russia closed out the group stage of the tournament with a lacklustre 5-1 defeat at Swedish hands, with Alexei Svechnikov scoring the only Russian goal late in the third period. The result left Golubovich’s crew in third place in Group A, meaning that a quarterfinal date with runners-up in Group B would be next on the menu.
As noted above, the quarterfinal opponent turned out to be Finland, and the game was one of Russia’s better ones, even if it did not result in a victory. The Finns had been reinforced by the arrival in North Dakota of forward Jesse Puljujarvi, the presumed top-three 2016 NHL draft pick whose season in Finland’s Liiga had just come to an end. Although the Russians trailed on three separate occasions by two goals, they closed the gap each time, but could not quite ever find an equalizer. In the end, 4-3 was the final score, with Finland out-shooting Russia 32-26. It was a reputable result, even if it did end the tournament for Team Russia, and the fact that Finland went on to defeat the U.S. and Sweden for the gold medal certainly does nothing to diminish the Russians’ battling performance.
As far as individuals are concerned, it was yet another Dynamo prospect, Yaroslav Alexeyev, who led the team in scoring with three goals and two assists. Also with five points in the tournament, via a goal and four helpers, was defenceman Dmitry Samorukov of the CSKA Moscow program. Bitsadze had a good tournament, scoring twice and leading the team in +/- at +4. And goaltender Daniil Tarasov, who got most of the minutes for Russia at the Worlds, did just fine too; the Salavat Yulaev Ufa youngster posted the third-best save percentage of all netminders at .921.
We should also take note of Andrei Svechnikov, the youngest player on Team Russia at only-just 16. Svechnikov scored twice in his debut at the U18 level, and of course has a chance to be at this tournament a couple more times before he’s done. That latter point, of course, can also be made of a number of his team-mates; while this tournament may have ended at the quarterfinal stage for Team Russia, it should provide valuable experience for the next edition or two of the Under-18 team.
Interestingly, the North American-based players seemed to struggle a little bit despite enjoying an extra year of experience. Vladimir Kuznetsov of the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan did have three assists, but OHL defenceman Mikhail Sergachyov, expected to be taken in the first ten at this summer’s NHL draft, failed to record a point. The Canadian junior league season is something of a grind, and had only just ended for Kuznetsov and Sergachyov, so it is likely that fatigue played its role here.
Finally, all kinds of credit to Russia’s Head Coach, Sergei Golubovich. Like his team, he was experiencing Under-18 hockey for the first time (Golubovich has coached at the U16 and U17 level) with very little opportunity to prepare. But he got the ship righted after the tough start against the United States, and was rewarded with three good performances out of the next four games. And so for Golubovich and his team, given the circumstances of their presence in North Dakota, I think we must call this tournament a success, if perhaps a qualified one.
One more note: Russia’s Under-18 team, soon no doubt to include a number of players who appeared at this year’ Worlds, will continue its performance in the MHL, the top Russian junior league, next season. And that is fair enough, too; the U18s topped the Central Division in that league this season, and we obviously still do not know how much a year’s worth of work together would have benefited them at the World Championship. The first results of that experiment will now not be seen until next year’s Under-18 World Championship in Slovakia.
Thank you for reading!