The World Championship Continues…
When last we checked in Russia had a 2-1 record at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, and a couple of their performances had been of the distinctly rocky variety. It was by no means time for panic, but there was certainly some work to be done. So how have things gone since, as Russia faced Denmark and Switzerland in Group A action? Read on…
Good news was on its way even before Russia took the ice to face Denmark on Thursday; the elimination of the Washington Capitals from the NHL playoffs meant that Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeny Kuznetsov, and defenceman Dmitry Orlov were en route to Moscow, and would be available for Saturday’s game against Switzerland. The call-ups of those three had left Russia with one available spot for a skater, and the coaching staff had opted for Stepan Sannikov of the KHL’s Sibir Novosibirsk. An interesting choice: the 25-year-old is not known as one of the KHL’s elite scorers, with 82 points in 330 career games, nor had he ever played for a Russian national team. However, he is a reliable, responsible, sort of player, and clearly Head Coach Oleg Znarok and his staff had seen something they liked. Sannikov was in the lineup to face the Danes, and not only that: he was penciled in alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Mozyakin on Russia’s first line (in the end, he and Roman Lyubimov shared the duties on that line). Igor Shestyorkin, meanwhile, has officially been added to the Russian roster as the third goalie.
It would be an understatement to say that Russia’s offense got on track against poor Denmark; in fact, it was as ruthless a performance as you will see, and it caused FHR President Vladislav Tretyak to wax pleasantly nostalgic about some teams he had known in the past. The scoring began early, as Alexei Marchenko recorded his first ever World Championship goal, and then Maxim Chudinov and Nikita Zaitsev made it 3-0 before the first period came to an end. Three goals, all from defencemen, and the shots on goal favoured Russia by 19-2 after 20 minutes.
Russia continued to pour on the pressure in the second, aided by a continuous file of Danish players headed to the penalty box, but oddly enough it was Denmark that scored. Jannik Hansen of the Vancouver Canucks made it 3-1, but any notion that drama might be at hand was snuffed out a minute later when Sergei Mozyakin restored the three-goal cushion. Only three minutes after that, it was 5-1 as the Metallurg Magnitogorsk superstar struck again. And only ten seconds had elapsed after THAT goal when Sergei Shirokov took his turn at finding the scoresheet, and the lead was five.
The onslaught was not over, as the old SKA trio of Yevgeny Dadonov, Artemy Panarin, and Vadim Shipachyov now found the range in a big way. Even before the second period was over, Dadonov had made it 7-1, and then Shipachyov scored Russia’s eighth and ninth in the opening minutes of the third. Shortly thereafter, Russian Head Coach Oleg Znarok switched goalies, pulling Sergei Bobrovsky and giving Ilya Sorokin mop-up duty. The only question now was whether Russia could hit ten, and indeed they could: Panarin rounded out the scoring to make the final 10-1. It was a blistering performance by Team Russia; Panarin and Shipachyov ended up with five points apiece, and Dadonov had four. And, while Denmark had clearly written the game off almost as soon as it began, it was still Russa’s best showing of the tournament on a number of levels.
On to a potentially tricky match-up with Switzerland then, and Saturday’s game was indeed a tougher affair. But Russia’s scorers kept coming; in the first period, Ivan Telegin blew past the Swiss defence and stuffed home his own rebound to put the hosts ahead. It was 1-0 at the first break, and in the second the newly-arrived Kuznetsov signaled his presence with one of the nicest goals of the Worlds so far (see highlights at the top of the page). His original shot off the rush was stopped by Reto Berra in the Swiss goal, but the rebound popped up off the ice about three feet. As his momentum carried him past the net, Kuznetsov reached back and flicked the puck out of mid-air into the top corner. The puck entered and exited the net so fast that play actually continued for a couple of seconds, but a review confirmed the goal, and Russia were up by two after 40 minutes.
Despite getting into penalty trouble, as the Danes had against Russia, Switzerland were matching the home team nearly shot for shot into the third period, but Bobrovsky was doing his bit in the Russian goal, and mid-way through the third Telegin tallied his second of the game to put the final result beyond much doubt. And if Telegin’s marker did not do the trick, Sergei Shirokov’s goal to make it 4-0 with five minutes left certainly did. Sadly for Bobrovsky, his shutout bid was spoiled by Simon Moser with only 1:16 to play. No matter: with only seconds left, Datsyuk and Mozyakin found themselves on a two-on-one, and that was only ever going to end one way. Mozyakin finished it off, the afore-mentioned Sannikov picking up an assist for his first career World Championship point, and “5-1” read the scoreboard when the final horn sounded.
And so Team Russia sits at 4-1, with a spot in the medal round confirmed. Two first-round games remain: on Monday against Norway and then Tuesday’s vitally important clash with Sweden. Should Russia, as expected, prevail against Norway, the Sweden game will likely determine who gets second place in Group A (likely quarterfinal opponents: Germany, although the U.S.A. is also a possibility), and who will finish third and face a tough encounter with either Finland or Canada. Russia even have a chance at first place, although that will require Switzerland to take at least one point off the Czech Republic on Monday. Znarok has said that Sorokin will get the start in net for Russia in one of these last two round robin games, with the smart money being on the Norway encounter.
So how are things going for Team Russia? I can we can be mostly positive at this point; for one thing, the disciplinary issues that plagued the team in its first couple of games seem to have been ironed out at least somewhat. The team, furthermore, is now getting rock-solid goaltending from Bobrovsky, and Sorokin has looked good in his brief appearances. And finally, the offence is obviously firing on all cylinders, with Panarin, Dadonov, and Shipachyov all in the tournament’s top seven scorers after their performance against Denmark (adding Ovechkin and Kuznetsov will not hurt this process, either). As for potential worries, as Arto Palovaara points out, there may be some fragility in the Russian defense, and if that is not fixed, the Swedes on Tuesday will be very tough to deal with indeed, not to mention whoever waits in the medal round. However, on balance, Russia is doing just fine at this tournament, and will be looking to keep the momentum going into next week.
News Notes tomorrow, as the off-season free agent shuffle goes on, and we’ll update the World Championship once the medal round is over. Thank you for reading!