The Medal Round Awaits at the Worlds
We are through to the medal round at the 2016 IIHF World Championship in Russia, and the following match-ups await hockey fans on Thursday:
- Czech Republic vs. U.S.A.
- Finland vs. Denmark
- Russia vs. Germany
- Canada vs. Sweden
The winners of those four games will advance to the semi-finals, to be played on Saturday, and the gold and bronze medal games will follow on Sunday. In the meantime, read on, as we take a look back at a spectacular end to the Group A games for Head Coach Oleg Znarok and his Team Russia players!
Russia rested goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on Monday against Norway in the penultimate Group A game, giving Ilya Sorokin of CSKA Moscow his first ever World Championship start (Sergei Mozyakin also got the day off). Sorokin’s team-mates, meanwhile, peppered the Norwegian goal in the first period, firing 12 shots and allowing only five in return. But Norway’s Stefan Søberg defended his net well, and we went scoreless to the first break. In the second, Russia broke through, the under-rated Ivan Telegin potting his third goal of the tournament early on. Then, with only a couple of minutes left in the frame, Artemy Panarin beat Søberg to extend Russia’s lead to two after 40 minutes. It was all looking very comfortable.
It got even more comfortable in the opening minutes of the third, when Roman Lyubimov, another player opening some eyes at this tournament, made it 3-0. At that point, Russia may have been guilty of easing off. Norway pressed hard (third-period shots favoured them by 11-7), and Sorokin had some real work to do. He accomplished the tasks given him, however, and Lyubimov’s goal stood up as the final one of the game for either team. A 25-save shutout made for a memorable full debut for Sorokin, and given Russia’s slightly reduced lineup, no one was going to turn up their nose at a 3-0 victory.
And so it was on to face Sweden. In the early Group A game on Tuesday, the Czech Republic had downed Switzerland, meaning that Russia could not finish first in the group but needed only a point to secure second. But the game, against a powerful long-time rival, would also tell us whether Team Russia had fully recovered from shaky performances to begin the tournament, or had simply been taking advantage of weaker opposition.
For the first 40 minutes at least, the answer was emphatic. The Russians opened the game on the attack, whipping crisp, astute, passes back and forth, skating at the Swedish defense with speed and authority, and putting 18 shots on net in the first period alone. And they took the lead 15 minutes in, when Yevgeny Dadonov’s mis-hit one-timer somehow found its way in after tremendous work by his line-mates Panarin and Vadim Shipachyov. An ugly goal, but a deserved one for both team and line, and that trio was at it again just three minutes later. On this goal there was no mis-hit; Panarin put so much into his shot that he fell over, and the score was 2-0 after 20 minutes.
Russia kept the throttle wide open into the second period, as the Panarin line handed over the scoring duties to Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Mozyakin, and the afore-mentioned Lyubimov. Less than two minutes into the middle frame Datsyuk pounced on a loose puck in the slot and fired home to make it 3-0; it was the venerable Detroit Red Wing’s first goal of the tournament, to go with six assists. As the game approached its halfway point, Datsyuk turned provider when his clever pass found Mozyakin sneaking — as is his wont — into empty space behind the opposing defence. Mozyakin in turn laid a nifty backhand pass across to Lyubimov, who had time and a wide-open net with which to make the score 4-0. And that was how the second period ended, as another 17 shots were fired at the Swedish net.
The Swedish players, for their part, had had their chances, with 21 shots of their own through two, and they came out for the final period looking to turn the tables and make something of the game. The first eight shots of the period came from the men in the yellow sweaters, and one of them, courtesy of Mattias Ekholm, found its way in to reduce the arrears to three. But that was to be as tense as things got. While Team Russia could not re-establish its dominance of the first two periods, the Swedish attacks were gradually blunted, and when they did get through, Sergei Bobrovsky was resolute in defending his net. When the final horn sounded, 4-1 was the final, and Russia had secured second place in Group A. The first few minutes of the third period aside, it was as superb a performance as Team Russia has laid on this season.
So on to the quarter-finals; on Thursday, Oleg Znarok’s boys will face the surprising Germans, who secured third spot in Group B ahead of the United States. With all due respect to Germany, that is a match-up the Russians will look forward. Of course, they must be wary of under-estimating their opponents; Germany defeated the Americans in their round-robin meeting, and gave Team Canada some very bad moments in that game. And this is the medal round, where single-elimination games mean that one bad day can ruin a tournament’s worth of good work. However, if the Russian players can match the pace and skill they showed in the latter half of the group stage, they should be confident of taking a place in the semi-finals.
Furthermore, it seems fairly clear that Russia is over whatever ailed them against the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan at the beginning of the Worlds. There is a rather astounding statistic to support this recovery: since finding themselves shockingly tied against the Kazakhs in the third period of the second Group A match, the Russians have scored 28 of the 31 goals that have occurred in their games. Panarin, Dadonov, and Shipachyov lead the way, with all three men in the top seven in tournament points (Shipachyov leads the way with a line of 3-10-13 in seven games). The understanding between that trio, and between Datsyuk and Mozyakin on the other big line, has been beautiful to watch in action — not to mention lethally effective. And we should not forget to mention CSKA Moscow team-mates Lyubimov and Telegin, who have combined for seven goals while playing in various combinations up and down the lineup.
The most impressive thing about Russia’s scoring feats at the Worlds so far? They have taken place with very little contribution from Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals superstar has but one assist in three games (fatigue and jet lag may well be factors here), and the mind boggles to think of what Team Russia might get up to if he can get himself on track.
The defence and goaltending, meanwhile, have combined to give up three goals in five games. Yes, a large part of that came against opponents outside hockey’s international elite, but every team at this tournament can boast at least a couple of top-level players, and the achievement should not be sneezed at. If there is a concern for Znarok and his assistants, it will be the third-period let-downs against both Norway and Sweden. That relaxation did not cost Russia anything but a single goal against and some hard work for the netminders, but it is the sort of thing that can lead to big trouble if indulged in during the medal round. The Russian coaching staff will want to stomp it out without delay.
Speaking of the game against Sweden, and the Russian passing attack that had been on display, FHR President Vladislav Tretyak remarked: “In the first two periods, the performance of our team reminded me of my youth, my team — the national team of the USSR.” It was the second time this tournament that the legendary Soviet goalie had drawn specific comparisons in the press between the style and scoring power of this 2016 Russian team and those great old USSR squads of the past. Beginning against Germany on Thursday, it will be the job of Oleg Znarok’s troops to see if they can’t make him do it again. Thank you for reading!