MOSCOW – Russia’s U20 national team has slipped below the local radar in the run-up to next week’s World U20 Championship, but the squad is confident that it can overcome a “group of death”.
The Moscow leg of the Euro Hockey Tour, the shock departure of Yevgeni Nabokov from SKA St. Petersburg and the small matter of the FIFA World Cup heading east in 2018 have dominated sporting headlines.
But quietly the squad which won the “Super Series” against Canada’s top youth league players earlier this year is preparing for an even bigger triumph.
And a hastily arranged, under-advertised clash between the double headed eaglets and the grizzled veterans of Spartak Moscow underlined the potential in Valeri Bragin’s squad.
The team’s Friday night adventure saw them rattle up a 5-2 victory - with all five goals flying past celebrated goaltender Dominik “Dominator” Hasek, currently enjoying a last hurrah in the KHL.
And it was no half-strength Spartak squad: the Red-and-Whites left out only four of their regular stars, two of whom were away on international duty with Slovakia.
Meanwhile Russia's own preparations for the game were hampered by a 5:30 am start to ensure the squad had time to complete U.S. visa procedures - a process which forced defender Nikita Pivtsakin to miss the game to tackle red tape rather than Spartak strikers.
It’s that kind of form which has caught the eye of national team coach Vyacheslav Bykov.
And after watching his senior squad thump Finland at the First Channel Cup, he warned his players that their places were not entirely secure in the face of a new generation of rising stars.
“There are interesting guys in the U20 squad and they all have a chance,” Bykov said. “It goes without saying that we will be following the tournament closely – these are the guys who could even appear in the next stages of the Euro Hockey Tour. At the moment we are relying too much on our veterans – let’s see our young players grasp the chances which come their way.”
Among the youngsters knocking on Bykov’s door is Sibir Novosibirsk starlet Vladimir Tarasenko.
Despite his tender age, the right winger is already a veteran of more than 100 KHL games and has been a regular presence in the “Novosibirsk miracle” underway this season.
The perennial strugglers from the Siberian capital have transformed themselves from rank outsiders to a challenging opponent in the highly competitive Eastern Conference of the KHL.
Despite racking up the air miles to reach away matches from a city as far from Moscow as, for example, London, the team has shown that it can compete home and away for the first time in many seasons.
Tarasenko has already attracted NHL attention, and was snapped up by the St. Louis Blues in the 2010 draft - but for now he’s playing under his father Andrei in Novosibirsk.
That looks like a good decision, and not just in the light of KHL president Alexander Medvedev’s pointed observation that Russia’s most successful exports - the likes of Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and Malkin - all headed west with 100+ Russian league appearances under their belts.
But with most expecting him to take on the captain’s armband in Buffalo, Tarasenko is well aware that the expectations of playing in the national colours are very different from bucking the recent trends of Siberian struggles.
“At the moment playing for the national team is a greater responsibility,” he said in an interview on the official site of the Russian Hockey Federation. “You are representing the country and the whole of Russia is looking over your shoulder. In addition, everyone is waiting to see how well you can play.”
In the last World U20s the answer - to the distress of many - was “not very well”, with Russia failing crashing out to the unfancied Swiss in the quarterfinals in Canada.
But this time around Tarasenko is confident of better things. “I’m trying not to think about last year - these are not pleasant memories,” he admitted. “But we have learned valuable lessons from that defeat - we must learn from our mistakes.”
Since then Russian youth hockey has picked up, with their success in the November Super Series picking up increasingly enthusiastic TV audiences as Canada’s famed youth leagues fell to a 4-2 series loss to the Russian visitors.
Not that Bragin is taking anything for granted in the run up to the World U20 Championship - going so far as to drop Metallurg Novokuznets KHL regular Zakhar Arzamastsev, because the player has a one-match suspension hanging over him from the previous World Juniors.
“Everyone knows that in America we face a ‘Group of Death’,” Bragin explained in Sport-Express. “In our first two games, we face Canada and Sweden, so unlike in previous years our team will not have time to build up and find its game against opponents of a lower level.
“Because of the suspension, Arzamastsev would miss the game with the Canadians and since we have to engage in battle at once we should minimize any risk of disruption.”
Russia flew to the U.S. on Sunday, and took a big squad even without the addition of half-a-dozen or so North American based players.
The team faces a final warm-up game against Slovakia before naming the final tournament roster.
But one name has already reluctantly been crossed off the list, with Ivan Telegin of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit ruled out by injury. His place in the provisional squad was taken by Stanislav Galiev of the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Meanwhile Russia’s fledgling MHL youth league, set up to stop the drain of talent into the youth leagues of North America, also features a scattering of players in the squad.
While that tournament is geared towards slightly younger players, it hasn’t stopped goaltender Dmitri Shikin and his SKA-1946 St. Petersburg teammate Albert Konozov making the provisional squad, along with Bars Kazan duo Stanislav Bocharov and Denis Golubev.
And the MHL’s long-term aim is to see its players steadily stemming the westward flow of talent which has dogged the Russian game since the Berlin Wall came down – meaning future Russia squads at this level could have fewer Canada-based players and more local heroes.