World Championship Update!
There will be a full set of news notes along tomorrow, but in the past several days most of what has been happening in Russian hockey has been happening on the ice in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as the World Championship makes its way through the group stage. Team Russia is three games in, and I think we have to say that fortunes have been a bit mixed for them so far. Read on, and we’ll get you caught up on the early days of the tournament!
Friday’s opening Group A match for Russia, against the Czech Republic at the VTB Arena in Moscow, did not turn out to be the start Head Coach Oleg Znarok had been hoping for. His players looked tentative, nervous, and out of sorts, and it was not a great surprise when Tomáš Kundrátek put the Czechs ahead just seconds after a Russian penalty had ended late in the first period. In the second, Russia began to get back into it, but by that time it was 2-0, Roman Červenka having scrambled home a powerplay rebound right in front of Sergei Bobrovsky’s net. Chances started to come for the home team players, but they found Czech goalie Dominik Furch an un-cooperative opponent. And on one of the rare occasions when Furch was beaten, by Sergei Mozyakin late in the middle frame, the crossbar got in the way and kept the score at 2-0 after 40 minutes.
The third period saw the Russian players batter away at Furch and the Czech defence without reward, until Michal Birner salted things away for the visitors late on after Sergei Bobrovsky had been pulled for an extra attacker. It ended 3-0, and the fans might have been forgiven for thinking back to the disastrous 2000 tournament. On that occasion, the first time that Russia had hosted the Worlds since the end of the Soviet Union, the hosts collapsed completely; Team Russia won only once, against France, lost to Belarus and Latvia, and finished 11th.
So it was incumbent on Team Russia to turn things around in their second game, against newly promoted Kazakhstan on Sunday. It was indeed a much-improved performance; 49 shots headed the way of beleaguered Kazakh netminder Vitaly Kolesnik as compared to only 19 for Bobrovsky to deal with. Nonetheless, the game turned into a nail-biter. Yevgeny Dadonov put Russia up 1-0 early on, only for Kazakhstan to tie it up a minute later thanks to Dustin Boyd, one of their naturalized North American players. Just a couple of minutes later Roman Starchenko put Kazakhstan ahead, and one could almost feel the pressure on the hosts ratcheting up.
“Enough of that noise,” said Roman Lyubimov, and the big CSKA Moscow forward tied the game at two only seconds after Starchenko’s goal. Then it was Mozyakin’s turn, as the 2015-16 KHL playoff MVP blew an unstoppable shot past Kolesnik to make it 3-2 for Russia. Time to relax? Not quite. Yevgeni Rymarev, who plays in the VHL for Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk, banked the puck in off Bobrovsky from behind the net. The game stood at 3-3 at that point, and incredibly we were only through the first 20 minutes.
Both teams seemed to take a bit of a break in the second frame, as the scoring did not resume until there were only a couple of minutes left in the stanza. This time it was SKA St. Petersburg’s Anton Belov, as his powerplay blast from the point sailed through traffic and past Kolesnik to give Russia a 4-3 lead entering the final period. Early in the third the teams were back on level terms, when Maxim Semyonov, who like most of the Kazakh team plays in the KHL for Barys Astana, got wide open with his team enjoying a man advantage. Belov duly restored the Russian lead, his second goal of the night almost identical to his first, although this time at even strength. And then midway through the period, Lyubimov struck again, tipping home Belov’s shot to give Russia, finally, some breathing room. There were nervous moments at the end, after Dadonov took a late penalty, but Russia killed it off, and recorded a vital 6-4 win.
Despite the close score, it was in fact a very good performance by Team Russia, as that afore-mentioned shot total indicates. Belov, in particular, was a monster, scoring twice and adding two assists. Nonetheless, there were some questions. Bobrovsky’s save percentage stood at only .867 through two games; would Znarok be tempted to switch to young Ilya Sorokin for Monday’s encounter with Latvia? And what of the penalty-killing, which had given up three goals in four opportunities against Kazakhstan? As for the Latvians, they could not be taken for granted, having already taken both Sweden and the Czech Republic to overtime, even if they had come out on the losing end in both of encounters.
Znarok kept the faith with Bobrovsky, and Team Russia picked up against Latvia where they had left off against Kazakhstan, firing 13 first-period shots. Only a couple of top-notch saves from Latvian netminder Elvis Merzļikins kept the score 0-0 after 20 minutes. Then, in the second, a re-united trio took over for Russia. The Chicago Blackhawks’ Artemy Panarin, playing once again alongside his former SKA line-mates Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov, gave the hosts the lead with a shot that snuck through Merzļikins. Just a few minutes later it was Panarin to Shipachyov to Dadonov in tight to double the Russian lead. The Latvians, to their credit, were game and created some good chances, but Bobrovsky was showing the form that won him the Vezina Trophy a couple of seasons ago, and defenceman Belov even chipped in with a spectacular kick save of his own on one occasion. The scoreboard read “2-0” in Russia’s favour through 40 minutes.
There was to be no stopping the Panarin-Dadonov-Shipachyov line on this night. Shipachov got his name on the scoresheet with a beautiful tip to make it 3-0 early in the third period, before Panarin, with only two-and-a-half minutes to go, made it 4-0 on the powerplay. And that was how it ended; Coach Znarok could reasonably have some satisfaction with how his team had played. Obviously, Panarin and friends were the big story, as they combined for nine points against the Kazakhs (Panarin had four, Shipachyov three, and Dadonov two).
Bobrovsky, as well, eased some doubts with a stellar performance in stopping 27 shots and prolonging an interesting streak. Monday, May 9th, was Victory Day in Russia (the celebration of the end of the Second World War), and 2016’s was the third consecutive Victory Day on which Bobrovsky posted a World Championship shutout (Belarus and Switzerland were his previous victims). And the penalty-killers got the job done against Latvia, snuffing out five shorthanded situations including both a five-minute major to Alexei Yemelin and a lengthy two-man disadvantage late in the third (the Latvians actually made the difference three players, pulling Merzļikins for an extra attacker, and still the Russian penalty-killers kept them out).
So, as I said, it has been mixed fortunes for Team Russia so far: a bad loss against the Czech Republic, a good game against Kazakhstan made nerve-wracking by shaky goaltending and penalty-killing, and a fairly complete performance duly rewarded against Latvia. The Russian players now have a bit of a break, as they do not resume game action until Thursday, when their opponent will be Denmark. After that, it will be Switzerland (Saturday), Norway (Sunday), and Sweden (next Tuesday) to round out the group stage of the tournament. The Swiss team can always be a handful, but — with no disrespect intended — Denmark and Norway are not among the giants of this group, and Russia now has a good chance to go into that last game against Sweden at 5-1. Top spot in the group may be out of reach, as the Czechs have already beaten both Russia and Sweden, but second place is very much within the hosts’ grasp.
Discipline is likely to be much on Znarok’s mind over the two-day break from games; Russia have been shorthanded 13 times in this tournament already, tied for second-most at the Worlds, and that is frankly too many. Yemelin will very likely be suspended for that five-minute major against Latvia (it was a bad tripping foul on Miks Indrašis that got him tossed out).
However, that problem aside, Team Russia has been improving over the course of the tournament so far, and still has five roster spots available to be filled. Alexander Radulov could take one of those quite soon; he will have an MRI on Tuesday to find out if he is recovered enough from a niggling groin injury to join his compatriots. Overseas in the NHL, the Washington Capitals stove off elimination against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, but will have to do so again on Tuesday to force a Game 7 in that series. If the Capitals do bow out, Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeny Kuznetsov could be named to the Russian team by the weekend. If those two do arrive, and Radulov is deemed healthy, it will be a tremendous further boost to an offense that already looks like it is rounding into form. We shall see!
As mentioned above, full news notes will be along tomorrow, as the KHL continues to go through its off-season shuffling of players. And there will be a further World Championship update this weekend, probably on Sunday. Thank you for reading!