QUEBEC CITY –Veni, vidi, vici. Much like the ancient Gauls weren’t too happy with Julius Caesar’s conquest of their homeland, the Russians were stung when Team Canada came into Moscow last year, saw their way to a perfect 9-0 record, and conquered Finland in the gold medal game. With a stacked roster, the Russians had anticipated ending a title drought at the Worlds that goes back to 1993. Instead, it was their great historic nemesis that got to celebrate at Khodynka Arena. But now, Russia has come to Quebec City with a glittering array of offensive weapons that rivals 2007’s arsenal. It may be time for the Russian hockey empire to rise again.
Should San Jose, as expected, be eliminated from the NHL playoffs by Dallas, the opportunity to add Evgeni Nabokov would be huge for Russia. The first-time Vezina Trophy finalist played 77 games for the Sharks, with a league-best 46 wins and a 2.14 GAA. Nabokov’s most memorable previous international outing came against Canada at the 2006 Olympics, where he earned a 2-0 shutout in the quarter-finals.
For now, the two options are Alexander Eremenko and Mikhail Biryukov. Eremenko’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa defeated Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (backstopped by the now-injured Semen Varlamov) in the Russian Super League finals this year. Eremenko, unfortunately, is probably best-remembered in international circles for his failed pokecheck in overtime versus the Finns in the 2007 IIHF World Championship semi-finals, which led to Mikko Koivu’s winning goal. Biryukov is a promising 22-year-old who played 46 games and had a 2.54 GAA for Podolsk’s HK MVD this season.
Without Nabokov, goaltending will remain an Achilles heel for this team.
Featuring a heavy sprinkling of Super League talent, the Russian blueline should be competent, if not as imposing as the Kremlin walls. Danny Markov, who priced himself out of the NHL last year, is still a formidable hitter and shot-blocker. Although sidelined during the exhibition slate, the 31-year-old from Moscow Dynamo is expected to make an impact once the tournament begins. Andrei Kuteykin and Vitaly Proshkin bring valuable experience from their championship run with Salavat Ulayev Ufa, and Proshkin has seen duty at four of the last five Worlds.
On the NHL side, Dmitri Kalinin of the Buffalo Sabres is expected to add stability and some physical play, but little scoring - the 27-year-old recorded a total of just one goal and two assists in his four previous World Championships. Denis Grebeshkov, a former Los Angeles Kings prospect, is coming off his first full NHL campaign with Edmonton, where the mobile Yaroslavl native recorded 18 points in 71 games.
Nobody here stands out as a power play quarterback of Sergei Gonchar’s caliber, or even as a shot-blocker par excellence like Anton Volchenkov. But if they can emphasize solid positional play and minimize turnovers, Russia’s D-men shouldn’t be too bad in their own end.
With all due respect to the stacked Canadians, Russia has assembled the tournament’s most dangerous and explosive group of attackers. Watch for them to capitalize repeatedly on turnovers, stretch passes, and power play situations.
It all starts with Alexander Ovechkin, whose 65 goals (a new record for NHL left wings) and league-best 112 points for the Washington Capitals earned him the Rocket Richard and Art Ross Trophies, as well as making him a surefire Hart winner. The infectiously enthusiastic 22-year-old should be particularly motivated at this tournament because he didn’t play very well in Moscow last year. He looked stodgy, scoring just one goal and two assists in eight games, and earned a one-game suspension for a hit on Swiss forward Valentin Wirz.
Ilya Kovalchuk, attending his fifth IIHF World Championship, is Ovechkin’s closest competition in terms of the best one-timer in the NHL. With 52 goals for Atlanta this year, the 24-year-old winger tied his career high from 2006. Playing on the North American rink might be a boon for Kovalchuk, who sometimes gets caught up in individualistic play in international tourneys. More “Alexander power” comes from Ovechkin’s Washington teammate Alexander Semin and Nashville sniper Alexander Radulov, who scored 26 goals in his sophomore NHL campaign.
It’ll be worth watching the progress of the Kazan troika of Alexei Morozov, Danis Zaripov, and Sergei Zinoviev, whose offensive brilliance dominated Moscow 2007. (Zaripov recently told Sovetsky Sport he’s not a fan of the North American ice surface.) The diminutive but shifty Sergei Mozyakin just won his second RSL scoring title with 64 points for Khimik Mytischi. Interestingly, Petr Schastlivy, who served as Russia’s captain last year in Moscow, didn’t even make the 2008 squad.
And the legendary Sergei Fedorov will suit up for his native country for the first time since 1990, where he won gold for the Soviet Union as a teammate of Slava Bykov’s. Revered by his younger teammates, he’ll need to lead by example in pressure situations, and based on what he did after being traded from Columbus to Washington, the 38-year-old could contribute on the scoresheet too. (He won’t get to play with his younger brother here, though, as Fedor was a late cut from the roster.)
Anything less than making the gold medal game would be a disappointment for this vaunted squad. Expect them to blow out plenty of opponents in the early going. But the Russians can get frustrated against opponents who play a tight, physical game. At the last three World Championships, they’ve shown more of a commitment in their own end than they did in the early years of the millennium. However, they still haven’t been able to eliminate defensive lapses at the worst times that lead to their demise. The Super League players practiced on North American-sized ice before leaving Russia, which was a wise move in terms of getting acclimatized. This superpower might finally be due for gold, but the onus is on the Russians to prove they’ve learned from the errors of their predecessors.
As a player, Slava Bykov was a four-time World Champion and 1988 Olympic gold medalist. As the longtime head coach of his former club, CSKA Moscow, the 47-year-old has clearly developed the knack of teaching players discipline and skills without alienating them, a critical talent in modern hockey. Compared to the chemistry debacles that occurred under Alexander Yakushev (2000), Vladimir Plyuschev (2003), and Viktor Tikhonov (2004) - just to name a few--Bykov did a far better job of getting everyone on the national team to pull in the same direction in his debut behind the bench the last year. He’s assisted by Igor Zakharkin, a technical specialist who brings extensive experience from CSKA and various Swedish clubs.