While the 2021 World Junior Championship doesn’t begin until Christmas Day, Russia hit the ice for a pre-tournament game last night against Canada.
Even though the game meant nothing, it was critical for the players to use it to get up to game speed and get accustomed to the style and pace their team wants to play with. The Russians fell 1-0 in the game and didn’t look particularly good as a whole. Here are the takeaways for the team.
Yaroslav Askarov as Good as Advertised
The 11th overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft this past October was highlighted as one of the keys for the Russians in this year’s World Juniors, and in his first action, he showed everyone why that was. Before being pulled from the game after the second period, Askarov stopped every shot he faced.
Many questioned how he would bounce back after a disappointing 2020 tournament, but if last night was any indication, it appears evident that won’t be a question any longer.
Askarov looked sharp, poised, and ready to get to the real games. The Russians should be comfortable knowing that he is behind them at all times to clean up their mistakes and make the key save when they need it the most. That trust should allow them to play more free and easy than some of the teams in this tournament who could be derailed by shaky goaltending.
It was a performance that showed exactly what Askarov is capable of. From a couple of big saves, beautifully smooth movement in the net, and playing the puck that could be huge for the Russians on dump and change situations. Although the team as a whole didn’t look great, that will improve. If Askarov can continue to play like this, the Russians will be a tough out in the elimination stage.
Offense Leaves Something to be Desired
It is virtually impossible to be impressive as an offense when you don’t score a goal in a game, and even more so when you don’t generate many good scoring chances. Not one single player can be singled out for this, but rather the entire forward group for the Russians will need to play better.
Up and down the lineup, the Russians have talent. Despite playing a very talented hockey team, their performance left something to be desired. Luckily for them, it’s only a pre-tournament game, but the inability to create much of anything on that side of the ice is very concerning.
The Canadians easily shut down the Russians nearly every time in the offensive zone, they were first on loose pucks, and they made life difficult the whole game. Those are things that can’t continue. Eventually, the offense is going to need to put the puck in the back of the net to win games.
As mentioned before, this is only the pre-tournament. There is too much talent on the Russian forward group for this to continue as the preliminary round begins.
Power Play Needs Work
As evident by the zero on the scoreboard, the Russians didn’t capitalize on the power play. Whether be due to a poor scheme or an off night, the Russian power play was ineffective and easily smothered.
It’s hard to believe that the scheme on the power play is the issue. It seems more likely that the poor showing by the power play was a symptom of the offensive struggles exhibited by team Russia in this game. Once again, there is too much talent on the ice for the Russian power play for this trend to continue.
The puck stayed to the outside of the ice and the Russians seemed hesitant with their passing. As expected, it was disjointed. Coming in, it was Canada who was expected to look rough around the edges, but team Russia showed quickly that they weren’t immune to the rust caused by COVID-19.
The power play will likely be a focus for the Russians at practice, and having an effective power play would go a long way to helping the Russians come home with a gold medal when this tournament is over.
Defense Holds Strong
The defense was a bit of a question in previews this year for the Russians, but they showed that they can go toe-to-toe with the big boys of the World Juniors and hold their own. When you are facing a team who has Quinton Byfield, the second overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft on the fourth line, you know they are deep and have the ability to score 10 goals every given night.
But that didn’t happen. The Canadians only managed one goal on a seeing-eye shot from the point by Jamie Drysdale in the third period. The young defense, anchored by Shakir Mukhamadullin, was able to keep the biggest threats quiet and force the Canadian’s secondary threats to beat them.
It helps to have Askarov behind them of course, but the same thing can be said about a goaltender who has a good defense. They will help one another the better they play, and that would make the Russians one of the hardest teams to score on in this tournament. If their offence isn’t able to get going soon, that might need to be what happens.
The Bigger Picture
Ultimately, losing a meaningless game against the odds-on favorite to win the tournament isn’t a big deal. If the Russians use this game and get to work on some things, they will be fine. There is plenty to build on.
They won’t be eased into anything either. Their first game of the tournament comes tomorrow night against the Americans. Another team that can score loads of goals and is difficult to score on. If the Russians want to start the World Juniors off with a win, they need to be firing on all cylinders.