BUFFALO – Russia didn’t have the smoothest start into the 2011 U20 with zero points after two games, but the team improved and sealed its quarterfinal spot with an impressive 8-2 win over the Czech Republic. But is this team good enough to defeat a red-hot Finnish team in the quarterfinals?
And which kind of Russian performance will we see today? The Russia that struggles against top teams, or the Russia that outplays its opponents with fine passing as happened against the Czechs?
“Me, and the whole team, we progressed every game and we’re on the way to our best shape,” says Vladimir Tarasenko, the team captain. “We’re very happy that we moved to the next stage. We have to show our best hockey in the quarterfinals, and I hope it will be enough to win the game.”
Tarasenko is this year’s face of the Russian team. It’s kind of a trademark of any Russian selection to have a star and poster boy who represents the team. Once it was Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Malkin, then Alexei Cherepanov, who unfortunately passed away after collapsing during a KHL game, and in the last two years controversial Columbus prospect Nikita Filatov.
Now the captain’s role is Tarasenko’s, who already scored four goals in last year’s “World Juniors” as an underager, and who has accounted for seven points (2+5) in this tournament.
Somehow, it feels different talking with this year’s captain. He doesn’t feel overwhelmingly comfortable getting the lion’s share of the attention.
Journalists who wait for cocky quotes and overconfident gold-medal predictions like last year, when the Russian team ended the tournament in an underperforming sixth place, might be disappointed with Tarasenko’s humility.
“It’s not just about me; it’s all about the team,” Tarasenko says, not being over-confident about his fine performance against the Czechs. “Every guy on our team can be a leader in a different moment.”
Still, the son of former Olympian Andrei Tarasenko is crucial as a playmaker on the squad, orchestrating nice moves and passes that could have been coached out of the old Soviet hockey school.
The 19-year-old first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues is playing in his third season in Russia’s top professional league. It’s his second World U20 Championship, and last year he was called by coach Vyacheslav Bykov to play on the men’s national team for three exhibition games.
Tarasenko plays where his father comes from, Novosibirsk, a city of 1.4 million people three time zones ahead of Moscow, where the thermometer can dip to -40° C these days and hockey is a natural leisure activity during the tough Siberian winters.
He’s had 115 career games in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, scoring 28 goals and 22 points. That makes him one of the top prospects in the league. But several talented players left Russia to play in one of the three big Canadian junior leagues – although only one out of 20 were seen as good enough to make the U20 national team – Tarasenko has never thought about leaving home too early.
“It’s better to stay here and play with, and against, players who are veterans and who have NHL experience,” Tarasenko says. “It helps me to learn something from them and to improve my game.”
Being under contract for another year in Novosibirsk, Tarasenko also doesn’t have specific plans about transferring to North America right now.
“Right now I try to win everything I can,” is his simple answer about his future goals.
Next up is Finland in the quarterfinals.
Last year in Saskatchewan, Finland outshot the Russians in two games. Russia won 2-0 in the Preliminary Round while Finland won the fifth-place game, 4-3.
“We expect a very tough game against Finland,” Tarasenko said. “There was no time to relax. We were fully focused on game preparation.”
Indeed, the Finns have performed well here in Buffalo this year, losing their only game in overtime against reigning champion USA. But who knows what the Russians can reach here with their unselfish captain?