A Review of the World Junior Championships Semifinal Match Between Russia and Sweden
Americans finally got a chance to watch this beauty of a tournament on TV thanks to the glorious NHL Network. This meant I was able to watch the Russia – Sweden semifinal match from the comfy confines of my couch rather than scouring the internet to watch it online on a grainy and always buffering video player. Yes.
The Russians are coming off three straight world junior gold medal game appearances and three straight losses to Canada in said games. They are also coming off a brutal seven losses and one tie shellacking in the “Super” Series against Canada. Yet, they looked pretty good against the Czechs in the quarters and were now facing a Swedish team who recently defeated the juggernaut that is the Canadian national junior team, the first time the Canadians have lost in a few years. Despite producing a slew of great players and having success at the senior level, the Swedes' junior program has been not very good for a very long time: out of the medals since ’96 and no golds since ’81. How is a nation that has produced Lidstrom, Forsberg, and Sundin (Mats not Ronnie) go through a drought like that? Some thoughts on what I found was a highly entertaining game (though I guess I could watch a Russian national team practice and find it highly entertaining; actually, judging by the result of the game, this may be the preferred way to watch the Russians play).
The first period was your classic feeling out, “this is a huge game let’s not do something stupid early,” period.
Viktor Tikhonov Jr., grandson of legendary Russian coach and legendary Russian a-hole Viktor Tikhonov Sr., has been the Russians' best forward this tournament and was once again today. This guy has a similar stride and the same bull in a china shop style as Ovechkin, and like Alex he also is not afraid to shoot the puck. The kid has some sick moves which he showed off late in the game with the score tied when he blew by three Swedish defenders and beat the fourth with an insane between the legs dangle, only to try and make another move in close on the goalie and get stuffed. Would have been the goal of the tourney without a doubt, but alas. But more impressive was this guy’s work in his own zone and on the PK. Coach Nemchinov (who probably deserves his own post) alternated Tikhonov and Maxim Mamin as the lone forwards on the 4-3 PK to begin OT. Tikhonov was making smart and aggressive defensive plays all night. How is it possible that he has been passed over twice in the NHL draft already? Great player, his game is probably more tailored to North America than the large rink. Seems like he doing OK in Severstal as a 19 year old, but someone should definitely try to bring him over here. Baby Ovechkin.
Russian defensive prospects have been much maligned in recent years, in part due to the declining presence of Russian defensemen in the NHL. It’s seems obvious that this is based less on a lack of quality Russian defensemen and in larger part to 1) the absence of a transfer agreement; 2) the skyrocketing and lightly taxed Russian Super League salaries; 3) the difficulty of training any defensemen, North American or European, to play in the NHL; and 4) the preference, perhaps short-sighted in some cases, of Russian players (and families and agents, I imagine) of playing at home in the RSL to riding buses and making $60,000 a year in the AHL. There are a plethora of examples of Russian defensemen who may or may not have been able to become solid NHL players but who will never have had the chance because they opted to stay at home, but there are some notable young d-men who are in the process of joining that group: Alexei Emelin, Kiril Koltsov, Ilja Nikulin.
Where was I going with this? Despite this phenomenon, that Russian defensemen are almost surely better than North American scouts and fans rate them, the group of defenders on this year’s junior team nevertheless does still appear to be lacking the big-name game breakers that previous teams have had. However, I was impressed by the group’s top three: Evgeni Kurbatov, Jakov Seleznev, and Vyachaslav Voinov. Kurbatov appears to be a tough as nails guy in the mold of a Dimitri Yuskevish, who has been playing in the RSL the last few years literally on one leg. Yuskevich is as tough and gutsy as they come and if Kurbatov plays half as hard, he can hang his head high. Kurbatov was a horse in this one, on the ice a ton, blocking shots, and generally exuding a certain amount of calmness. He’s another player that’s been passed over twice now in the NHL draft. I wonder if he’ll come over, but there seems to be little doubt based on his performance in Pradubice that he has the ability to play in the NHL one day. Seleznev is a bit smoother and may have been the team’s best one on one defender, despite getting walked around by 16 year old Swede wunderkind, Viktor Hedman. Seleznev has some offensive upside to his game as well. Not sure what his draft status is but he reminds me of a poor man’s Andrei Markov. And finally, Voinov is the next Kasparitis/Danny Markov, the Russian Ulf Samuelsson. He’s mean and hits hard, and I didn’t see him running around and getting out of position trying to take anyone’s head off. North American scouts are much more likely to be attracted to this kind of Russian than Kurbatov or Seleznev, but I’m not sure he’ll be the better player. Overall, I think the entire group played fairly well today. I didn’t see much of Maxim Chudinov who I thought looked good in the Super Series and against the Czechs. Marat Kalimulin had a couple of terrible plays on the Power Play, Yuri Alexandrov had an ugly last man back turnover, and Doronin, we’ll get to him. The one thing they seem to lack is the huge offensive threat from the back end, like a Gonchar or Zubov. I guess the kid Ivan Vishnevskyi is supposed to be pretty slick and skilled, and a nightmare in his own end, but he didn’t make the team.
It was fairly even through the game’s first half I thought when Russia began to turn the tide. Finally, late in the second the Russians drew first blood. Alexei Cherepanov corralled a puck in the neutral zone and held on to it just long enough to let 17 year old Nikita Filatov gather some speed before hitting him in stride outside Sweden's blue line. Filatov did the rest as he exploded by the Swedish defender wide and then brought the puck back inside and tucking it somewhere between the goalie’s pads. It’s the kind of goal you dream about scoring every time you walk to the rink (at least I do, dream that is). Filatov most of the time looks like the real deal, at least when his baby face is not making him look 15. He led Russia in shots on goal for the tournament but had the puck roll off his stick late in the third on a play that would have put the game out of reach. He’s also fanned on a pass to an open Cherepanov early in the second that would have been a tap-in. Maddeningly inconsistent brilliance, but Russia should not be in a position where it’s placing its scoring hopes on the shoulders of a 17 year old (2 17 year olds if you count Cherepanov). Filatov on ability alone would be a top 15 pick in next year’s draft it seems, but no transfer agreement, who knows.
Which brings us to Cherepanov. Ah, Cherry, he who sat in humiliation for two hours at last year’s draft as scores of players not anywhere near as talented heard their names called. Playing on what was essentially the second line, Cherry was the team’s most consistent offensive threat. He can absolutely wire the puck, though I wish he hit the net with his slapshot more, and he’s very good at controlling the puck down low. There’s nothing I hate more than the intellectually lazy and borderline rascist theory that Russians are skilled but lazy and selfish and care more about looking good than winning, etc. It’s basically nothing more than an easy to follow (and propagate) storyline forged from groupthink and ignorance. However, I hate it almost as much when it’s given credence. And when Cherry-bomb took a dumb and lazy and selfish, and worse, totally unnecessary, hooking penalty midway through the third, it not only provided ammunition to those Russian bashers, but really changed the momentum of the game and cost Russia a shot at gold. Russia had been controlling the flow most of the third and effectively protecting their one goal lead when Cherepanov, after a pretty good shift in the offensive zone actually, reached out and hooked a Swede at the blue line where, I think, he had a defenseman back covering on the play. No idea what he was thinking, but Sweden, of course, tied the game on a patient, pretty move by Robin Figren, and they basically dominated the rest of the period and the OT.
Russia valiantly killed off a PK in OT and I was holding to the belief that if it went to a shootout Russia would almost surely have the advantage. But unsurprisingly, it wouldn’t come to that. Mikael Backlund blew by poor Pavel Doronin and made a nice move to slip it through Sergei Bobrovsky and end it. The only few times I noticed Doronin before that were for nice plays he made, one was a great aggressive play he made to start the PK in OT, but he got beat badly and you know he’s gotta be hurting right now. You’ve got to give credit to the Swedes though; they never stopped battling and Backlund, Finger, and Patrik Berglund were particularly good (it did kill me to watch their batch of blonde haired, blue eyed kids who live in a nation where there’s no crime, high education, awesome social services, beautiful, smart women, all singing their national anthem out of tune after they won). Berglund even tried the dick-move where you turn the blade over and control the puck with just the tip of the toe as its perpendicular to the ice. It’s what all the skilled pricks try at open ice-hockey. Berglund did it in the last minutes of a tied world junior championship semi-final.
As for the keeper, Bobrovsky. He played great, couldn’t be blamed on either goals and made a bunch of difficult saves. It was the first time ever, I think, that I’ve watched a Russian junior team and not been afraid that a back-breaking, terrible goal was just around the corner. All in all, it’s disappointing that I won’t be watching these guys losing to Canada in the finals for the forth year in a row. Instead, I’ll be cheering them on against the filthy Americans for oh so shameful bronze. Go get it, boys.