Russian goal celebration (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
The Russian team at the World Junior Championship is, as usual, peaking at the right time and is off to the gold medal game once again. An impressive 4-1 win over Sweden in the semifinal of the tournament assured Russia of its fifth straight medal in the event.
Russian defenseman Rinat Valiev was asked whether his coach Valeri Bragin had ever mentioned the 2011 Russian team that looked an awful lot like this one. It took him a while to figure out the question. Once he did, he broke out into a wide smile.
“Like, everybody knows that,” said Valiev, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect who plays with Canadian captain Sam Reinhart on the Kootenay Ice of the Western League. “He don’t need to talk about it.”
The similarities are eerie. Both teams looked underwhelming at times, winning just two of their four games in the preliminary round. But the 2011 team, everyone in Canada will remember, peaked at the right time, capped by a 5-3 win in the gold medal despite trailing Canada 3-0 after two periods. That team was also coached by Bragin, who defeated Canada the next year in a wild semifinal game. In fact, the only time Bragin has lost to Canada was 2005, when his Russian team with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin was blown out in the gold medal game to a Canadian team most acknowledge as the best in the history of the tournament.
And with a convincing 4-1 win over Sweden in the semifinal, they’ll be in the gold medal game again. Assured of a silver medal at worst, the Russians will have won a medal in each of the past five tournaments. And that might not auger well for Canada, who are expected to face the Russians in the gold medal following what should be a formality in the semifinal tonight. What makes the Russians so such an unpredictable opponent is they’re so difficult to figure out. This was a team that needed overtime to beat Denmark and looked awful in a loss to the Czech Republic in final game of the preliminary round.
But unlike the Canadians, who need to have the foot firmly pressed on the gas from the time they start the tournament, the Russians are far better at pacing themselves in this tournament. And even more importantly, the Russians have a unique ability to not allow all the chaos around them affect them. This is a team whose players face an uncertain future when they return to Russia. With the decline of the ruble, the KHL teams are hurting badly and that is undoubtedly going to trickle down to the VHL – the KHL’s version of the American League – and the MHL junior league, where most of the Russian players play. There have been reports that the MHL is in serious trouble and could be folded or truncated.
But the Russians seem to thrive on playing through turbulence. When the Soviets took to the ice for their first game in the 1992 WJC, they did so against the backdrop of the dissolution of their country and finished the tournament as the Commonwealth of Independent States with gold medals around their necks. A couple of months later in Albertville, France, they took gold again as the Unified Team.
When you don’t even know what your own country is going to look like when you get home, what’s a little uncertainty surrounding your junior team?
Canadian fans who were cheering Russia during its 3-2 win over USA in the quarterfinal Friday night got what they wanted. The Russians won that game and, against the Swedes, displayed a methodical ability to dismantle a pretty good team. By the time the final comes around Monday night, the Russians will have played two tough games against USA and Sweden. Canada will have played Denmark and Slovakia in their playoff games. (It should also be noted that Russia defeated Canada 2-1 in overtime in their first pre-tournament game, despite the fact Canada outshot Russia 53-20 in the game.)
It’s undeniable the Russian team that has been on display the past two games is quite unlike the team that started the tournament.
“We have a good team and we can beat anyone,” said Ivan Barbashev, a St. Louis Blues draft pick who plays for the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec League. “We had a couple of pretty hard games against USA and Sweden. We know how to play and we’ll play (in the gold medal game) the same way we played today and two days ago.”