2018 Canada/Russia Series: Russia Scores Late to Edge WHL

Coming off a 2-1 victory over Russia in game one of the 2018 Canada/Russia Series, the WHL hoped to complete the sweep at the Langley Events Centre on Nov. 6. Unfortunately, despite outplaying the Russians, the WHL allowed a late goal and then an empty-netter, falling 3-1 in game two of the series.

WHL vs Russia – Game Two – Period One

The WHL started Vancouver Giants defender, Bowen Byram and Vancouver Canucks prospect, Jett Woo as a defensive pairing. They faced an early onslaught from Russian forecheckers who played physical through the first five minutes of the game. The WHL were on their heels as the Russians won the majority of battles along the wall.

“I think we ran out of gas a little bit tonight — a lot of guys playing four games in five nights and they pushed the pace. They’re a fast team and probably the fastest most of the guys in the WHL have played this season.” – Tim Hunter, Team WHL coach.

Despite the early aggression from the speedy Russians, the WHL weathered the storm and found the net for the first goal of the game as New Jersey Devils prospect, Ty Smith managed to put a screened shot from the point into the net. The goal came just over five minutes into the contest and it deflated the Russians.

It was all WHL for the rest of the first as they went on to outshoot the Russians 18-8 in the period. Vegas Golden Knights prospect, Cody Glass and Nolan Foote looked dangerous together throughout the first frame and created quality scoring chances on just about every shift. I expect Hunter to keep these two together at the World Junior Championships in Vancouver.

Cody Glass
Cody Glass (Dayna Fjord/Portland Winterhawks)

Just when you thought the WHL was going to run away with it, the Russians did what all great Russian teams do: they capitalized late when the WHL’s guard was down.

A huge open-ice, neutral zone hit by Montreal Canadiens prospect, Alexander Romanov sparked a change in momentum and the Russians took the puck into the WHL’s zone, hemming them in with their smothering forecheck. The puck eventually came to Los Angeles Kings prospect, Bulat Shafigullin, who put the puck past a screened David Tendeck with 53 seconds left in the period.

WHL vs Russia – Game Two – Period Two

In the first, the Russians tried stretching out the WHL’s neutral zone by putting one and sometimes two forwards up on the WHL’s blue line, to no avail. This forced the WHL defenders to back up, creating a lot of open ice in the neutral zone for the strong-skating Russians to exploit. They kept at it in the second and found more success with it.

The Russians dictated the play through the first half of the second period and peppered Tendeck with shots. However, the Vancouver Giant looked extremely comfortable in the Giants’ barn.

“Well, we knew he was a good goalie. I was really impressed and good for him, he played really well and kept us in the game. In the second period, we bent, we didn’t break there.” – Tim Hunter, Team WHL coach.

David Tendeck of the Vancouver Giants
David Tendeck of the Vancouver Giants. (Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)

Alongside the improved offense, the Russians also eased up on their physicality and intense forecheck. I’m sure fatigue became a factor for both teams, and the WHL took two obstruction penalties (holding and hooking) in the frame. They survived both penalties, but couldn’t muster up a lot of offense in the second.

What little offense they did create was carried by the Prince Albert Raiders’ leading scorer, Brett Leason. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound winger displayed his strong skating and offensive flair; he’s a tough body to handle, especially when he gets his feet moving. He’s exploded this season offensively and chalks it up to a changed mentality:

“I just have lots of confidence. My coaches trust me and let me go in all aspects of the game and let me play my game… I had a strong summer and put in a lot of work.” – Brett Leason, Team WHL.

The towering winger finished pointless but did manage four shots on net and really played a key part in keeping Russia at bay during the second frame.

The Russians clawed back offensively and beat the WHL 11-9 in second-period shots, but the WHL ramped up their physical play and really reduced the skilled Russians’ time and space. Woo led the charge as expected. The Canucks prospect made some noise in the LEC with a devastating hit in the WHL’s end with four minutes remaining in the second. The WHL rallied, took the puck up ice and generated some quality scoring chances.

WHL vs Russia Game Two – Period Three

The third period was fairly similar to the second. The Russians narrowly out-shot the WHL, this time 9-7, and the speed of play decreased even more as fatigue really set in on both sides. Tendeck kept his team in it, shutting the door on a Kirill Slepets breakaway early in the third with the Russians pressing. His D-men had nothing but high praise for him:

“I think that speaks for itself. He was pretty unreal tonight and I think he had one of his better games of the year.” – Tendeck’s Giants teammate, Bowen Byram.

Bowen Byram Vancouver Giants
Bowen Byram is the biggest reason the Vancouver Giants are favourites to win the B.C. Division this season. (Chris Relke/Vancouver Giants)

The Russians’ exhaustion became noticeable through the first half of the third as they took two tripping minors. Unfortunately, the WHL’s power play continued to be an issue, 0-3 on the night and 0-7 in the two-game series.

You can’t expect players to form chemistry and a sense of cohesion in such a short stint, but one or two tallies on the man-advantage would have been huge. With that being said, I don’t think they were being deployed properly. Not to knock Hunter’s coaching, which I appreciate, but we didn’t get to see Glass and Foote on their off-wings. Instead, they were on their strong sides, creating awkward shooting angles and eliminating any chance of deadly one-timers that have time and again proven to be extremely potent in today’s game.

Nolan Foote Kelowna Rockets
Nolan Foote of the Kelowna Rockets bounces the puck during warmups prior to a WHL game. (Marissa Baecker/Shootthebreeze.ca)

Speaking of Foote, the young man was called for a high sticking penalty with just 2:09 remaining in a tied game. The Russians capitalized just 27-seconds into the man advantage, courtesy of Stepan Starkov. A scramble play resulted in Tendeck losing his place in the crease and leaving a yawning cage for the Russians who added an empty-netter a short time later to seal the deal and splitting the series with the WHL.

Players on both sides of the puck are now heading back to their clubs, but also looking towards the upcoming WJC. Hunter is using this Canada/Russia Series coast to coast to see what kind of talent is available:

“Growing up as a kid, you watch the World Juniors at Christmas every year so hopefully getting that opportunity, that would be very good for your confidence. It would be an unbelievable experience.” – Trey Fix-Wolansky, Team WHL.

This series is a dipping-of-the-toes for a lot of these players in terms of seeing high caliber hockey and the speed that comes with it. For a lot of the WHL players, this was the fastest hockey they’ve seen.

The WHL didn’t get the result they had hoped for in their two-game stand against Russia but at the end of the day, it’s a learning experience:

“I learned how quickly you need to move the puck. It’s fast. It’s fast hockey. Just the speed of the game, I’m going to bring that back to my club team (Giants).” – Bowen Byram, Team WHL.

WHL vs Russia Game Two: Key Takeaways

  • Russia does not shy away from physicality, in fact, I feel that if they are well rested, they can dictate the flow of any game with it.
  • WHL’s power play was terrible: 0-3 on the night, 0-7 on the series. The OHL and QMJHL will need to have better showings.
  • Tendeck played great. He looked calm, cool, collected.
  • Glass and Foote looked extremely strong together — hands down the best line on the ice. Expect to see more of them together.
  • Brett Leason is showing a level of play that is going to get him some NHL attention and strong consideration for the WJC.
  • You really can’t tell that Byram is 17. He doesn’t miss a beat out there with his tremendous skating and hockey sense.