To the Medal Round at the Worlds!
When last we checked in the Russian national team at the IIHF 2017 Men’s World Championship, coach Oleg Znarok had his squad at 3-0, but had lost — at least temporarily — the services of captain Sergei Mozyakin (German forwardPatrick Hager, who had injured Mozyakin, was given a two-game suspension for the incident). So how have things gone for Team Russia since then? Well, read on…
After its fraught encounter with Germany last week, the Mozyakin-less Team Russia faced Denmark, and it was a somewhat strange box-score in the end. All the scoring arrived in the space one second-period minute (ok, within 1:10 officially); goals from Bogdan Kiselevich, Sergei Plotnikov, and Nikita Gusev secured Russia a 3-0 victory, with Andrei Vasilevskiy posting the 21-save shutout. However, the news was not all good, as it was shortly thereafter revealed that not only would Mozyakin miss the next game, against Slovakia, but that forward Artemy Panarin would be out as well.
The injuries, and some newly-arrived reinforcements, necessitated some line-shuffling: Panarin had been playing alongside his former SKA St. Petersburg line-mates Yevgeny Dadonov and Vadim Shipachyov, and the now-open spot in that trio was handed to Nikita Gusev. Gusev, of course, also played alongside Dadonov and Shipachyov at SKA — in fact, he was Panarin’s replacement on that line for club as well as, now, for country. Mozyakin’s spot, with Sergei Plotnikov and Vladimir Tkachyov, had been largely filled by committee against Denmark, but for the Slovakia game, Valery Nichushkin was added to the roster on that line, filling one of three Russian roster places that remained available.
The other two roster spots had also been filled by this time, although the players themselves were not available yet. The Washington Capitals duo of Yevgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov were on their way, following the Caps’ elimination from the NHL playoffs. No Alexander Ovechkin for Russia this year; the Capitals superstar, a frequent and eager participant in previous World Championships, was playing hurt in the playoffs, and opted for a well-deserved rest this time around. Also passing on the Worlds due to injury was the St. Louis Blues’ Vladimir Tarasenko.
Against Slovakia, all went well; the newly-reunited Gusev-Shipachyov-Dadonov line struck twice in the game’s opening 14 minutes, both goals off the stick of Dadonov, and Russia cruised from there to a 6-0 victory. Vasilevskiy recorded his second straight shutout, stopping 22 shots this time, and Team Russia’s record improved to 5-0. By this time, however, the sad though half-expected news had been confirmed: Sergei Mozyakin’s tournament was over, and the team’s captain was returning to Russia to rehabilitate the injury suffered against Germany. SKA defenceman Anton Belov took on the Team Russia captaincy with Mozyakin’s departure.
Next up: Latvia, and Russia’s head coach Oleg Znarok opted for Ilya Sorokin in goal, giving the CSKA Moscow netminder his first start of these Worlds. Gusev remained with Dadonov and Shipachyov, while Panarin, now healthy enough to play, was slotted in with Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov. The two Capitals players also drew in; Kuznetsov lined up with Nichushkin and Alexander Barabanov, while Orlov was paired on defense with Artyom Zub. The odd man out in all of this was Vladimir Tkachyov, as the young Ak Bars Kazan forward was used merely as an extra, and played only four minutes in the game.
Team Russia controlled matters from the outset in a somewhat bad-tempered match, and although the Latvians had a legitimate grievance about the allowing of Russia’s second goal, the first period shot total of 15-5 in favour of Znarok’s crew told its own story. Russia led 2-0 after 20 minutes, and cruised from there to a 5-0 victory. Panarin and Kucherov worked well together, putting up three points each, while Sorokin’s 24 saves made it three shutouts in a row for Team Russia. Amazingly, Sorokin has now played 180 World Championship minutes, between this year’s tournament and the 2016 edition, and has yet to concede even a single goal.
And so Team Russia entered their final group game yesterday, facing the Americans with top spot in Group A on the line. Not only would the winners get a theoretically-easier quarterfinal match-up (versus fourth place in Group B as opposed to third), but — more importantly — they would also be able to remain in Cologne, with the losers of the game having to trek to Paris for their quarterfinal. Coach Znarok went back to Vasilevskiy between the pipes, but made no other changes to his roster, and poor Tkachyov would once again see very little of the ice (3:41 total).
It was a strange opening to the game. Early penalty trouble for Russia — three minors and a double-minor in the first period — contributed heavily to a 16-3 American shot advantage through 20 minutes, but it was Team Russia that came out of it with the lead thanks to Gusev’s goal. Early in the second period, Kevin Hayes tied things up, only for captain Belov to restore the Russian advantage. Another tying goal soon arrived, via Dylan Larkin, before Gusev struck again to put Russia ahead for the third time on the night. That lead, however, suffered the same fate as the previous two; Hayes found the net before the end of the second period to make the score 3-3 entering the final frame.
The third period was a tight one, as the teams combined for only 11 shots (six by the U.S., five by Russia), but they were enough to determine a winner. With Kuznetsov in the box for slashing, Anders Lee of the New York Islanders scored mid-way through the final frame to put the U.S. ahead for the first time in the game. This time, no equalizer could be found, and an empty-netter by Brock Nelson in the last minute made the final score 5-3. The U.S. took top spot in the group, while it was Team Russia boarding a train to France today.
Despite a reputable group-stage record of 6-1 (one win, versus Sweden, coming via the shootout), Team Russia was clearly left with something of a bad taste in the mouth after the loss to the Americans. Said goalie Vasilevskiy (per the IIHF website):
“It’s one thing playing against Slovakia or Denmark… With all due respect, we should beat these teams, our roster has more class. But maybe we relaxed a little bit after those games and didn’t manage to adjust [against the Americans]. The USA is a serious opponent, but we didn’t keep control of the puck and we gave up stupid goals. It should be a lesson for us.”
And indeed, it did very much appear that Russia had trouble re-adjusting to facing a “power” opponent (that shootout victory over Sweden had come back in the tournament’s opening game). They did a good job avoiding let-downs against the weaker teams in the group (a genuine peril for strong squads at the Worlds), but now need to find a way to impose themselves on the better teams in the tournament. And while Russia has posted some very nice numbers so far, we must admit that some of that has been inflated by the games against those afore-mentioned lower-ranked squads.
On the bright side, however, the numbers have indeed been impressive. Team Russia has scored the most goals of any team at this tournament (35), and conceded the fewest (9). Artemy Panarin leads all scorers at the tournament with a line of 6 gp, 3-10-13, and that despite missing a game due to injury. Vadim Shipachyov (7 gp, 2-10-12) and Nikita Kucherov (7 gp, 5-6-11) are also in the top five in points. Vasilevskiy and Sorokin have combined to give Russia the best team save percentage at the tournament, at .946. The special teams seem to be ticking along nicely, with penalty-killers ranked fourth (85.0%) and the powerplay tops in the tournament at 54.2%. Even if we discount the six-for-six performance with the man advantage versus Italy, Russia’s powerplay would still be second-best at 38.9%. Finally, apart from the first-period hiccup against the United States, Russia has done an excellent job maintaining team discipline; 52 penalty minutes is tied for second-fewest at the Worlds.
That last note, about staying out of the penalty box, may turn out to be an important one come tomorrow’s quarterfinal. Czechia (5-2 in the group stage, with two wins via overtime or the shootout) is on tap as the opponent, and the Czechs have the third-best powerplay at the tournament, at 31.8%. Furthermore, Russia’s old rivals have been playing a very stingy defence; no team has given up fewer shots than the Czechs’ 125 in seven games. So goals may be at a premium in this one, and Russia will need to limit the opponent’s chances with the man advantage. An area of relative weakness in the Czech team, one that Russia may be well-set to exploit, has been goaltending; Petr Mrázek and Pavel Francouz have combined for a save percentage of .896, just 11th-best at the tournament, and second-worst among medal-round teams.
So although this will be a test for Team Russia, it should be a pass-able one if Znarok’s crew can keep their wits about them and avoid the mistakes made against the Americans. We do have to keep in mind the change of city, too; as IIHF observer Nick (@ngtaria_iihffan on Twitter) noted this evening, such pre-quarterfinal moves have generally proven hazardous to the teams subjected to them.
There are no placement games (beyond the bronze medal match) at this year’s Worlds, so for the quarterfinals’ losing teams, the tournament will be over. Winners will advance to the semi-finals on Saturday, with the gold and bronze games on Sunday. Whatever happens with Team Russia tomorrow, we will have some final tournament thoughts here after the entire tournament has wrapped up. In the meantime, however, there have been Things going on in the KHL; you can check back here tomorrow for some interesting statements from the league’s President. Thank you for reading!
P.S. I would highly recommend checking out this interview with longtime coach Dave King, who of course has experience as a bench boss in both the KHL and the old Russian Superleague. Very interesting things to say about Russian hockey!