International Ice Hockey Federation

Russia seeks Buffalo glory

Russia seeks Buffalo glory

Bragin won’t rest on the laurels of 2011

Published 25.12.2017 08:18 GMT-5 | Author Andy Potts
Russia seeks Buffalo glory
17-year-old forward Andrei Svechnikov is among the top prospects on the Russian team at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. Photo: Steve Kingsman / HHOF-IIHF Images
For Russia, Buffalo is a city of happy memories. The country’s last World Junior gold was forged here in 2011, in a tournament packed with thrilling comebacks.

But, seven years after that unforgettable rally to sink Canada in the final, it’s a very different Russian team that headed to the USA.

The class of 2011 featured the talents of Yevgeni Kuznetsov, Artemi Panarin and Vladimir Tarasenko, all of whom have gone on to impress in the NHL. But even when the roster was assembled, there was a sense that the players involved could go on to do something special. This time around, there isn’t the same kind of stand-out name: few members of Valeri Bragin’s squad have significant KHL experience, while the ever-more-youthful look of Russia’s MHL youth league is also having an impact on selection.

“I can’t say yet whether there’s a different character about this year’s team,” Bragin told Sport Express as his roster assembled. “That 2011 team was unusually talented, just look at how many players have grown into NHL stars. But since then, there have been significant changes in youth hockey, and our task gets more difficult every year.”

Despite the absence of an obvious leader, Bragin is not certain that the lack of a hot prospect will harm his team when the action starts next week. “We’ll just have to see whether it’s a plus or a minus for our team,” he added. “The World Championship will show us, but it’s easy to expect a lot from one or two players then find that at the crucial moment it doesn’t work out. The main thing for us is to build a strong team, where everyone is willing to die out there on the ice.”

If there’s a lack of emerging KHL talent on the roster, injury problems have hardly helped. Grigori Dronov, a highly promising defenceman at Metallurg Magnitogorsk, would have been a lock had it not been for injury; his colleague on the blue line, Yegor Zaitsev of Dynamo Moscow, is fit again but missed several games with a shoulder problem.

Before that, he captained Russia in the annual Super Series, and saw his team come close to winning that match-up with representatives of Canada’s CHL junior leagues. “The way we played in the Super Series proves that we can do it,” Zaitsev told reporters at an open training session in Moscow. “We’re going with every intention of winning it all. We’ll go out there and play our hockey, and it’s up to the opposition to deal with that.”

Back in 2011, Zaitsev was watching the games at his family’s dacha. While much of the audience was thrilling to the scoring exploits of Kuznetsov & Co, young Yegor had another name to follow. “My namesake, Nikita Zaitsev, was playing then,” he added. “I still follow his career to this day. I love the way he plays, and he’s a great example in many ways.”

Another echo of the class of 2011 comes from Chelyabinsk. The Traktor organization that nurtured Kuznetsov is represented again this year with another promising forward, Vitali Kravtsov. He missed the Super Series, left at home to play in the KHL amid suggestions that his chances of making the World Juniors might have slipped away. But he’s back in contention now, and trying to get in the zone ahead of the tournament.

“I’m trying not to think of anything,” he said. “I don’t want to get wound up. I just need to go out and do what has to be done.

“I’ve got some KHL experience, and any experience is helpful. But I don’t see myself as a star. At Traktor, [head coach] Anvar Gatiyatulin is quick to put us in our place, and both at my club nor on the national team we all treat each other with understanding.”

As usual, there’s a healthy contingent of North American-based players in Russia’s roster for the championship. Andrei Svechnikov, currently playing in the OHL with the Barrie Colts, has been garnering positive notices for years and is a potential top pick in the 2018 NHL draft, while Dynamo Moscow graduate Klim Kostin has been released by the St. Louis Blues’ AHL franchise and will feature in Buffalo.

Russia’s first warm-up game ended in a 4-2 victory over Denmark, with another Traktor player, Marsel Sholokhov, getting the winning goal. He admitted that the team made heavy weather of it’s win, though, telling the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia website: “Our errors in the third period allowed the Danes to tie the game, and it was a relief that we quickly scored a third. But even though we’ve not had much game time since the start of December, we managed to get into a bit of rhythm almost immediately.”

Russia played a further warm-up game, defeating Slovakia 3-2 after a shootout on Saturday, and starts its campaign on 26th December against the Czechs.

 

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