Russia at the 2016 Worlds
The 2016 IIHF Men’s World Championship drew to a close on Sunday in Moscow, and congratulations are in order to Team Canada, who defeated the spectacular young Finns 2-0 to earn a second straight gold medal, and to Patrik Laine, the 18-year-old budding Finnish star who was named the tournament MVP. For Team Russia, too, Sunday was a good day, although tempered by disappointment at not being in the gold medal game. Bronze was still there for the taking, though, so read on for a look at the third-place game, and at Russia’s tournament in general!
Russia’s first task on Sunday was to make sure that they at least acquired a medal, if not one of the desired hue, and this job was accomplished in style. Head Coach Oleg Znarok opted to stay with Sergei Bobrovsky in goal for the bronze medal game, and got good news on the availability of forward Ivan Telegin (rumours that he had suffered a broken leg in the semfinal against Finland turned out to be exaggerated). And the high-powered Russian offense, shut down by the Finns on Saturday, was on full display almost from the opening faceoff against the United States. First a Vyacheslav Voynov point shot deflected in to make it 1-0. Then Sergei Mozyakin was given far too much time and space on the powerplay, and the Metallurg Magnitogorsk man drove a hard shot over the shoulder of American goalie Keith Kinkaid.
With Russia up 2-0, the first half of the middle frame passed relatively uneventfully, but that relaxing interval was followed by four goals in six minutes. The goal-deluge began when Pavel Datsyuk mesmerized the U.S. defence, then found Telegin sneaking in behind to make it 3-0. Three minutes later Artemy Panarin and Yevgeny Dadonov worked a two-on-one to perfection, with the latter cashing the 4-0 goal. The Americans pulled one back when Frank Vetrano slipped a shot under Bobrovsky’s arm, but Russia’s four-goal cushion was quickly restored. Anton Belov’s point shot hit the goalpost and caromed straight to Panarin, who could hardly have missed. The two teams went to the dressing room with the hosts up 5-1, although the shots at the time favoured the Americans 22-17.
Kinkaid was replaced by Mike Condon to start the third, and Vatrano gave the American team a glimmer of hope when he fired home David Warsofsky’s astute pass. But Bobrovsky was impregnable thereafter, and Russia kept coming. With seven minutes left, Datsyuk set up Mozyakin in front for the 6-2 goal, Mozyakin’s second marker of the game. And finally, as the last seconds ticked away, Panarin and Dadonov combined to get the puck to Vadim Shipachyov. He made 7-2 the final score, and put an exclamation point on his tournament scoring title. A resounding victory, and something for the players and fans to smile about in the end, after the disappointment against Finland.
What can we say about Team Russia’s run at the Worlds? It certainly began in shaky fashion, with a 3-0 loss to the Czechs and an unexpectedly narrow 6-4 win over Kazakhstan. After that, however, things went fairly swimmingly, until Saturday’s encounter with the powerful Finns. Obviously, a bronze medal is a bittersweet reward, but this team did show itself capable of spectacular performances in front of the home crowd. Shipachyov, Panarin, and Dadonov finshed first, second, and third in tournament scoring, with Shipachyov’s line of 10 gp, 6-12-18 leading the way (Panarin finished with 15 points, Dadonov 13). Many of their goals, too, were of the spectacular variety; the trio’s mutual understanding reminded us often that they had been line-mates at SKA St. Petersburg until Panarin left for the NHL last summer.
The SKA line were not the only ones deserving of plaudits, however. The pairing of Datsyuk (11 points) and Mozyakin (nine) got along just fine to say the least, while Roman Lyubimov and Telegin shared time on their wing and profited thereby (Lyubimov finished with eight points and Telegin with six). None other than Vladislav Tretyak opined that Telegin’s breakout performance at the Worlds was “the most important discovery” of the tournament, and likened the CSKA Moscow forward to a wasp stinging opponents. In fact, every Team Russia skater recorded at least a point at the World Championship; of the other participants, only the gold-medal-winning Canadian team can make the same claim.
The tournament was something of a lacklustre one, it must be said, for Alex Ovechkin and Yevgeny Kuznetsov, who arrived mid-way through along with Washington Capitals team-mate Dmitry Orlov. All three deserve real credit for devotion to the cause, as they hurried to join their national team immediately after a heart-breaking loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL playoffs. But fatigue and jet-lag almost certainly kept them from contributing as they would have liked; Ovechkin and Kuznetsov managed only a goal and an assist each. Oddly, that meant that it was relatively unheralded defenceman Orlov who led the Capitals brigade with three points. Not that Ovechkin and Kuznetsov played badly — they really didn’t, overall — but nor did we see them at their absolute best.
As for the Russia defence and goaltending, they did what was asked of them for the most part. Sergei Bobrovsky got the lion’s share of the work in net, and recovered well after joining his team-mates in the shaky start to the tournament; he finished with a .931 save percentage, seventh-best among goalies who played more than 100 minutes. His back-up, Ilya Sorokin, was perfect (36 shots against, 36 saves) in 75 minutes over three games, including a shutout in his first World Championship start.
In front of Bobrovsky and Sorokin, the defenders had their questionable moments (what blueline crew does not?), but generally performed well — Team Russia gave up the fifth-fewest shots on goal per game in the tournament (25.4), for which not all of the credit goes to the defencemen — but at least some of it does. There seems to have been some confusion among observers as to who was the best Russian blueliner at the Worlds: the team brass gave the nod to Voynov, while the media named Nikita Zaitsev to the All-Star team. Belov, meanwhile, led the defencemen with seven points in nine games. If you were to ask me to pick just one, I think I would have to go with SKA’s Belov, a useful and oft-overlooked part of the Team Russia equation.
One of the big questions of the coming days will be: whither Oleg Znarok? The man who won two Gagarin Cups behind the Dynamo Moscow bench has been Russia’s head coach since 2014, when he replaced Zintula Bilyaletdinov after the team’s poor performance in Sochi and led Russia to a gold medal at that year’s Worlds. Team Russia has medaled in each of Znarok’s three World Championships in charge, including this one. However, lately there has been much talk that he will take over the vacant coaching position at SKA St. Petersburg, and it is unclear whether he would be allowed to combine that with the national team job. It is possible that Russia will have a new head coach as attention turns to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
There will be some disappointment in the Russian hockey world over the bronze medal result at this year’s tournament, and that is understandable, but I think in the cold light of day that this was a good run for Team Russia. Third place out of sixteen is nothing to sneeze at, especially given some of the competition. But more than the result, it was the way the Russians played when they were at their best, that was encouraging. The intricate passing and team speed, hallmarks of the Russian game going back more than half a century, were on full display on more than a few occasions at this tournament, a fact that did not go un-noticed among the former greats looking on. We can but hope that we will see more of it — hockey is long overdue for a revival of that style! As a final note, by all accounts the World Championship in Moscow and St. Petersburg was a thoroughly enjoyable experience for everyone in attendance, so “well done” to the organizers, volunteers, and all who worked to make that happen.
And with that we say “good-bye” to the 2016 IIHF World Championship, pausing once more to congratulate gold medalists Canada, silver medalists Finland, and Russia who took home the bronze. News notes will be up tomorrow, and there have been momentous doings this past week on various fronts (KHL expansion, to name but one). Thank you for reading!