QUEBEC CITY – There’s an amusing story about a high-ranking Russian hockey official’s visit to the IIHF offices in Zurich, Switzerland.
Two IIHF staffers were having a laugh about some trivial matter, and apparently carried on a bit too much for the official’s liking. He suddenly barked at them in English: “More discipline!” In other words, joke’s over, time to get down to work.
Well, apparently the “More discipline!” mantra has trickled down to Vyacheslav Bykov’s players at the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Quebec City, who are now poised to confront Canada in Sunday’s gold medal game.
After Russia’s 4-0 win over Finland in the semi-finals, Finnish head coach Doug Shedden said: “The Russians were uncharacteristically in control of themselves the whole game. In the past, we could get under their skin and get them to take a lot of penalties.” He recalled stick fouls the Russians dished out during Euro Hockey Tour action in Sweden.
It’s a peculiar paradox. Before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the USSR national team was known as one of hockey’s most rigidly disciplined. They didn’t fight. They rarely engaged in post-whistle scrums. Sure, they engaged in their share of stickwork, but they knew they’d suffer the consequences from their head coach - be it Tarasov or Tikhonov - if they took untimely penalties.
But since the 1990’s, the Russians have more than once seen their dreams of success disintegrate because they couldn’t keep their emotions in check.
Ilya Kovalchuk is Exhibit A. The mercurial Atlanta Thrashers winger is eligible to play for Russia on Sunday after serving a one-game suspension for taking two game misconducts in this tournament. The first came from a fight with defenceman Anton Stralman in Russia’s 3-2 win over Sweden; the second was the result of a nasty, high hit on Switzerland’s Julien Vauclair in Russia’s 6-0 quarter-final victory. As a result, he tops the 2008 penalty parade with 52 minutes. No other Russian is even close.
Which Kovalchuk will show up versus Canada? The two-time NHL 52-goal scorer whose one-timers are virtually impossible to stop? Or will he remain scoreless in this tournament and get upset about it, leading to the kind of antics we saw when he pointed to Sidney Crosby exiting the penalty box after he scored a power play goal versus Pittsburgh, grabbed Edmonton Mike Comrie’s hair in a fight, and so on? Now is just not the time or place.
The Russians could certainly use Kovalchuk as a secondary scoring threat, because Canada will try to put heavy physical pressure on the “Washington line” of Alexander Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov, and Alexander Semin.
Ryan Getzlaf, a member of Canada’s golden 2005 World Junior team, surely remembers how Ovechkin was knocked out of the championship game that year with a bad shoulder after taking hit after hit.
In addition to the big NHL names, Superliga stars Alexei Morozov, Danis Zaripov, and Sergei Zinoviev could generate some goals as well. But on this smaller ice surface versus Canada, their better chances are likely to come on the power play, not at even strength.
And the Russians need to make sure they’re getting those man advantages, not handing them to Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf, and Rick Nash.
Posting two consecutive shutouts in the quarter-finals and semi-finals is more of a defensive feat than most would have figured the Russians were capable of - at least prior to the addition of Evgeni Nabokov. The Sharks netminder shut out Canada 2-0 in the 2006 Olympic quarter-finals, but it will be tough for him to replicate that feat again today. The Russians will be better-served to wait for their chances and capitalize on a rare odd-man break versus Canada, rather than trying to go end to end from the get-go.
Do they have the discipline to play the same way they did against Switzerland and Finland? We’ll soon find out.