BRATISLAVA – In the Canada-Russia rivalry, the spotlight often shines on scoring stars, from Phil Esposito and Valeri Kharlamov to Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. But what about the goalies?
Canada’s Jonathan Bernier and Russia’s Konstantin Barulin – both newcomers to elimination play at the senior IIHF level – are about to discover just how much their roles are magnified in a clash like this. It’s always been this way, going right back to the birth of international hockey’s greatest rivalry in the 1950s.
In 1954, Canada lost 7-2 in the deciding game of the World Championship to the Soviet Union, which was making its international debut in Stockholm, Sweden. So when the amateur Penticton Vees were dispatched to Krefeld, West Germany, the following year to seek revenge for Canada, there was great pressure on their starting goalie, Ivan McLelland. He delivered as the golden Canadians shut down Soviet scoring star Vsevolod Bobrov and won 5-0 in the highly anticipated rematch.
McLelland, who still lives in Penticton, told IIHF.com in 2008: “Murray Costello, who’s on the IIHF Council, used to kid me about the 5-0 win over the Russians: ‘Nobody in the history of hockey ever got more mileage out of one shutout than you have!’”
While the 1960s saw the Soviets racking up numerous gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships, including a run of nine straight world titles from 1963 to 1972, their top goalies, like Viktor Konovalenko, rarely faced much rubber. The Soviet game, relying on puck possession and all-out offence, kept the puck in the other team’s end most of the time. At the same time, the Russians gained great respect for Canada’s Seth Martin, who backstopped the 1961 Trail Smoke Eaters to gold and continued to suit up for Father David Bauer’s Canadian national team in the years to come.
Canadians learned to revere and fear the great Vladislav Tretyak during the landmark 1972 Summit Series between the Soviet national team and Canada’s NHL best. Even though Paul Henderson’s late goal on Tretyak gave Canada a 6-5 win and the series victory in Game Eight, the 20-year-old Muscovite stunned Phil Esposito, Yvan Cournoyer, and Frank Mahovlich with his athletic ability and positioning.
Even though it wasn’t a Canada-Russia clash per se, the 3-3 tie between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow certainly fit into that tradition as a meeting between the top Canadian and Russian club teams. Again Tretyak shone against the legendary Ken Dryden, as the Canadiens outshot CSKA 38-13.
When the Russians beat Canada in this era, it was often lopsided, and not only in Olympic or World Championship play. Netminder Vladimir Myshkin’s 6-0 win over the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup final comes to mind.
Just as memorably, the Russians trounced Canada 8-1 in the 1981 Canada Cup final. Tretyak held down the fort in the first period as the hosts outshot the USSR 12-4. Then Sergei Shepelev, with a hat trick, and the great KLM line of Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov took over, devastating the reputation of Canadian goalie Mike Liut in the process.
And so the back-and-forth has continued. Canada has undoubtedly developed more top-flight netminders in the 30 years since that ‘81 defeat, but the Russians have had their moments to shine too.
You can point to Canada’s Grant Fuhr foiling Krutov during overtime in the second game of the 1987 Canada Cup final – a save that kept Canada alive to win the three-game series on a classic Mario Lemieux goal set up by Wayne Gretzky. Or how about the 1996 Canada-Russia semi-final at the IIHF World Championship in Vienna, which Canada took 3-2 in a shootout thanks to Curtis Joseph’s bettering Andrei Trefilov?
You can look at the light and darkness of Russia’s Yevgeni Nabokov, who has been forced to withdraw from this year’s tournament due to injury. He outdueled Canada’s Martin Brodeur en route to a 2-0 shutout in the 2006 Olympic quarter-final in Turin; in Fuhr-like fashion, he didn’t give up the one last critical goal in Russia’s 5-4 come-from-behind win over Canada in the 2008 IIHF World Championship gold medal game. But Nabokov did collapse memorably in the 2010 Olympic quarter-final in Vancouver, allowing six goals before Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov pulled him in a 7-3 defeat, and he may never have been the same netminder since.
In 2009, Phoenix Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov put on one of the best goaltending displays in recent memory for Russia, as his team beat Canada 2-1 in the Worlds gold medal game in Bern, Switzerland despite being outshot 38-17.
For the future? Young Canadian netminders like Marc-André Fleury and Carey Price are hoping they can defend their country’s Olympic title at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. And budding Russian netminding stars like Sergei Bobrovski and Semyon Varlamov are hoping to gain home-ice revenge for the 2010 fiasco.
In the meantime, let’s see if either Barulin or Bernier will put himself in the running for 2011 Worlds gold or a 2014 Olympic job with a vintage performance in Thursday’s late quarter-final.