Russia's Rinat Valiev (left) battles against the Czechs (Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Coaching can be a key ingredient to a world junior championship title and the Russians look like they're lost right now. Can one of the most fearsome programs around rebound before a showdown with Team USA?
After his team surrendered 4-1 to the Czech Republic in its final game of the round robin, Russian coach Valeri Bragin was in no mood for chatter. Not only did his team blow the chance to finish second in its pool, which would have assured the Russians a much easier draw in the quarterfinal, but the squad looks to be falling apart at the seams.
“Not enough, not enough,” Bragin said through an interpreter. “We've got to play sharper.”
When asked about Russia's slow starts in the tournament so far, his answer was even shorter: “I don't have an opinion.”
At this point, he should probably get one. The Russians have sabotaged themselves nearly every game so far, beginning with the surprising squeaker against Denmark, which required more than 60 minutes to resolve. The team unravelled against Sweden and admitted afterward that a potential goal that was waved off and kept off the board upon video review had shaken them.
And in a crucial game against the Czechs on New Year's Eve, they once again fell behind early and only briefly showed signs of life in the second period after mustering just three shots on net in the first (and 17 all game long).
“We always know we have to start fast, but we're always starting slowly,” said Toronto Maple Leafs pick Rinat Valiev after the loss to Sweden. “I don't know how it's happening.”
Details are the most obvious. After the Czechs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, Russia tallied in response, but took a needless penalty shortly thereafter. Needing a goal in the third and gifted with a power play, the Russians instead gave up a dangerous 2-on-1. And going back to the Sweden game, the team took an insane-looking too-many-men penalty when it set up a six-man formation in the Swedish zone for an incredibly long amount of time. Only a barrage of stick-smashing and yelling from the Swedish bench alerted the daydreaming officials to the error.
Now Bragin's crew will have to face a very good American team that waits for them in Montreal. I am a firm believer that coaching matters a great deal in this tournament and right now the Russians don't have it. Finland united behind Karri Kivi last year, while Team USA found magic with Phil Housley two tournaments ago. But Brent Sutter couldn't put it together for Canada last year after success in the past and Bragin seems to be following in his footsteps, particularly after this latest setback.
“It was probably our worst game of the tournament,” said St. Louis Blues prospect Ivan Barbashev. “The Czech Republic – they had been in a pretty bad situation in the group and they played pretty hard. They just beat us.”
Barbashev was one of the few Russians who stood out in the game, along with Valiev and goaltender Igor Shesterkin, a New York Rangers pick who plays with the SKA St. Petersburg organization back home.
Part of Russia's malaise is cyclical, but this roster is also not as good as it could be. The Buffalo Sabres kept big-time defenseman Nikita Zadorov in the NHL, but the absence of high-octane scorers Nikita Scherbak (Montreal) and Vladimir Tkachev (whom the Oilers tried to sign) is the responsibility of the team's own roster cuts. This squad has some dangerous players, but not on the level of say, Evgeny Kuznetsov or Mikhail Grigorenko in the recent past. Scherbak and Tkachev could have brought danger by committee.
Perhaps the Russians will find their mojo and give Team USA a game fitting of the legendary rivalry between the two nations and for Barbashev, quitting is not an option.
“For sure,” he said. “Like, 100 percent we will be ready for the next game. It will be another pretty hard game for us but we will be ready.”
If the Russians continue to play with their heads cut off though, expect even shorter remarks from Bragin in those post-game festivities.