En route to their surprising gold medal victory a year ago at the World Junior Hockey Championships, team Russia put together three incredible come from behind victories including rallying from three goals down in the third period to defeat Canada in the gold medal game. Their run to glory may have been unexpected but it did prove that the country is once again a world power at the U-20 level, and heading into the 2012 championships they are likely to be considered the pre-tournament favourites.
That’s right folks, Russia not Canada are the favourites going into the WJHC.
With a roster featuring an enormous amount of talent, particularly among the forward group, the Russian’s will begin this tournament under much different circumstances than they did a year ago. Last year they were the hunters, this year they will be the hunted.
A vastly different team from last year, star forward Evgeny Kuznetsov is the only returning player who knows what it’s like to wear a gold medal around his neck but he certainly isn’t the only marquee player on the Russian squad.
A first-round pick of the Washington Capitals, Kuznetsov tied for second in scoring in Buffalo and was one of the three forwards selected as tournament all-stars. He will be without his running mate from last year Vladimir Tarsenko, but there are certainly no shortage of replacements to fill the void.
When the first two picks of the 2012 NHL Draft are made, it is very likely that two members of this Russian team will be two names called. Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko are considered the top two draft eligible players in the 2012 class with Yakupov ranked first by Central Scouting and Grigorenko the top ranked prospect according to the International Scouting Service (ISS). Yakupov, a 1993 birthdate and Grigorenko a 1994, are both familar to North Americans as both players compete in the CHL; Yakupov with the Sarnia Sting in the OHL and Grigorenko with the Quebec Remparts in the QMJHL.
If the likes of Kuznetsov, Yakupov and Grigorenko weren’t enough, the Russians have a handful of others who are extremely talented in their own right. Vladislav Namestnikov (1st round, 27th overall by Tampa Bay), Nikita Kucherov, (2nd round, 58th overall by Tampa Bay), and Alexander Khokhlachev (2nd round, 40th overall by Boston) are all highly gifted players who will be terrorizing opposing defenses with their dazzling skills. Others who may be familiar to junior hockey fans include forwards Ivan Telegin of the Saginaw Spirit and Anton Zlobin of the Shawinigan Cataractes, defensemen Andrei Pedan of the Guelph Storm and Artyom Sergeyev of the Val d’Or Foreurs, and goaltender Andrei Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades.
Names such as Nikita Gusev, Daniil Apalkov, Sergei Barbashev and Victor Antipin aren’t yet recognizable due to the fact that they play in Russia but they are equally as talented and will all make an impact at some point in the tournament.
If exhibitions are any indicator, Russia’s 6-3 dominance over the United States on Tuesday night showed the potential that this team possesses. Always gold medal contenders, the Americans looked overmatched by the Russians speed and skill. The game futher proved the point that in order to be successful against them, you must take away their ability to create off the rush and in transition by avoiding turnovers and eliminating time and space.
Time and space. Something the likes of Yakupov, Kuznetsov and Grigorenko don’t need much of in order to beat you.
The Russians are coming. Be afraid.