HELSINKI – This year’s Russian team may not be able to match the exploits of the 2012 squad, which won 10 straight games in regulation en route to gold – the first team to do so since the 1989 Soviets. But with a home-ice Olympics looming in Sochi, the top seed in the IIHF World Ranking is still expected to win another title.
Interestingly, though, the Russian template for victory will likely look much like the one they followed in Switzerland 2009. With NHL superstars like Yevgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, and Alexander Ovechkin embroiled in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they’re entering this tournament with a KHL-heavy roster. But that didn’t hold them back four years ago.
Ilya Bryzgalov will reportedly get the nod as Russia’s starting goalie at this tournament. It’ll be an exciting challenge for the quirky, outspoken 32-year-old. He must aim to regain the sparkling form he showed in the 2-1 gold medal victory over Canada in 2009, where he recorded 37 saves.
With the Philadelphia Flyers, the former Vezina Trophy nominee and three-time Olympian was erratic at best this season, taking considerable heat as he owns a nine-year, $51-million contract.
Semyon Varlamov’s 21 losses with the Colorado Avalanche were the highest among NHL netminders, and his 3.03 GAA and 90.3 save percentage were career lows. That said, head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov has to feel confident in Varlamov’s abilities: the quick-moving 25-year-old backstopped Russia to the finals in both 2010 (silver) and 2012 (gold). Behind a savvy puck-moving defence, he’s also unlikely to face the volume of shots that he saw nightly with the Avs.
Towering Vasili Koshechkin, a three-time World Championship medalist who’s coming off a strong campaign with the KHL’s Severstal Cherepovets, is the third goalie.
Cohesiveness and familiarity will be a plus here. The Russians can four returning KHL defencemen from last year’s gold medal effort: Ilya Nikulin, Yevgeni Biryukov, Yevgeni Ryasenski, and Denis Denisov.
Nikulin, who potted two power-play goals and added five assists, is the kingpin; he was the lone Russian to play over 20 minutes per game in 2012. With Ak Bars Kazan this season, he put up 34 points in 51 games, fourth highest among KHL defencemen. Two World Championship newcomers also offer offensive prowess: CSKA Moscow’s Yakov Rylov (35 points) and Avangard Omsk’s Anton Belov (26 points).
Fyodor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets is the lone NHLer. This 2008 World Championship winner will add leadership and a physical presence to a blueline that isn’t noted for pulverizing its opponents, but is nonetheless very adept at separating them from the puck.
Last year, Bilyaletdinov got his D-men to manage the puck well and pay attention to detail in their own zone, minimizing the sloppy turnovers and lackadaisical play down low that have sometimes killed Russian teams in the past. If that trend continues, the Russians won’t allow a lot of goals.
Russia is rarely short on goals, and simply adding Ilya Kovalchuk to the lineup means opposing goalies are in for a rough ride. Kovalchuk excelled for SKA St. Petersburg during the first part of the season with the labour conflict in the NHL (18-24-42 in 36 games), but a shoulder injury that kept him out for 11 games with the New Jersey Devils limited his production (11-20-31 in 37 games). The two-time World Championship gold medalist (2008, 2009) is one of the world’s top left wings, and he’s always extra-motivated when he plays for his country.
Sergei Mozyakin, who led the KHL with 76 points and formed a potent Metallurg Magnitogorsk tandem with Yevgeni Malkin during the work stoppage, will make his shifty presence felt on the power play. CSKA Moscow captain Alexander Radulov, who scored the winning goal at the 2009 Worlds, was second in KHL scoring with 68 points, and is always a threat at this level.
It’ll be worth monitoring the progress of two forwards who made their World Championship debut last year. At age 30, Alexander Popov potted 12 points and finished second in team scoring in the gold medal run. Can the Avangard Omsk veteran achieve a similar performance this year? And what about Yevgeni Kuznetsov? Despite finishing sixth in KHL scoring with 44 points, the 20-year-old Traktor Chelyabinsk star wasn’t as effective in the playoffs as his club marched to the conference finals. Bilyaletdinov’s insistence on strong two-way play – more pronounced than that of his predecessor, Slava Bykov – may limit Kuznetsov’s opportunities. The Washington Capitals prospect wasn’t among the first 11 forwards registered by the team.
Adding an NHL superstar up front would be a nice plus later in the tournament. But with or without the likes of Malkin and Datsyuk, Russia’s firepower looks unmatchable this year, except, perhaps, by Canada.
After last year’s success, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov shouldn’t have much difficulty convincing his players to deliver a two-way, puck possession game. The former Gagarin Cup winner and NHL assistant coach appreciates that in modern hockey, the Russians can’t simply lean on their traditional, high-octane speed and skill. But equally importantly, he must also manage the hype and expectations heading into this last challenge before Sochi.
Historically speaking, Bilyaletdinov has a lot of demons to exorcise. Winning gold at Russia’s first home-ice Olympics would provide revenge for losing to Canada in Game Eight of the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow. Bilyaletdinov was part of the Soviet team that famously lost to American college players in the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” at the Lake Placid Olympics. And most recently, Russian hockey suffered a major blow to its prestige after the 7-3 quarter-final loss to Canada at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“Coach Bill” must convince his players to block out all of the aforementioned demons if he plans to shepherd them to two gold medals in the next 10 months.
The Russians are favoured to win the Helsinki group and advance to the gold medal game. Host Finland, the Americans, and the Slovaks all lack the depth to shut their offence down – at least on paper. Unpredictable things happen at the World Championship. But the Russians have made four out of the last five finals, and won three of them, so it would be foolish to underestimate them in any way.