Team Russia finished the round robin stage with a record of 2-1-0. After barely hanging on against the kids on Team North America, they shutout Team Finland. It was a game that Team Russia needed to win not only to advance, but also to regain some confidence. But victory, once again, wasn’t pretty for the Russians.
Still, even with inconsistent and lackluster play Team Russia found a way to make it to the World Cup of Hockey’s semifinals.
Russia will meet tournament favorite Team Canada in a showdown on Saturday night. The winner will go on to play either Team Sweden or Team Europe in the championship game. After shutting out Finland and scoring seven goals in their last two games, the Russians feel they have a chance to defeat Canada on their home ice.
“It’s going to be a fun game,” Russian captain Alex Ovechkin predicted. “It’s nice to be a part of obviously. Two teams with a great history. Again, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be hard because we play here in Canada. But it’s going to be fun, fun game.”
The fun might not last for long for Ovechkin and company. Canada defeated Russia 3-2 in overtime in their pre-tournament tilt, but the game wasn’t as close as the score might lead you to believe.
Team Russia was out-shot 48 to 26 through 63 minutes and 28 seconds of hockey. Russia is the clear underdog going into the semifinal game. With the right adjustments, though, they could put up a much better fight than most will be expecting.
The Power Play
Even with all of its star power, Team Russia’s power play has been unconvincing and a clear weakness of the team. In three pre-tournament games Russia went 2-for-16 on their power play. One of those two goals came from the stick of Ovechkin on a five-on-three opportunity against Team Canada.
Russia had seven power play chances against Canada in that game. Picking one goal up on a five-on-three was hardly an impressive performance.
Alarmingly, things only got worse for Russia’s power play in the round robin stage. In eight power play opportunities Russia registered just six shots and failed to score a special teams goal. They often looked sloppy and indecisive. The Russians were guilty of frustrating mistakes like unforced offsides and failed to get shots on a few of their power plays.
If not for Canada’s lack of discipline on Sept. 14, Russia would have never seen overtime. Canada dominated them at puck possession at even strength. Team Russian can’t afford to squander the power play opportunities they get Saturday night.
To have a real shot at winning, they need to find a better way to harness their firepower and chemistry to give their power play some teeth.
Head coach Oleg Znarok has been one of the World Cup of Hockey’s most interesting personalities. His approach to coaching is very “by the system” and inflexible. Znarok appears to pay very little attention to line match ups and insists on deploying his forward lines in succession.
As a result, top players, including Ovechkin, have not seen nearly as much ice time as they should. Russia has played in their own end for long stretches of the tournament which has helped to keep skilled forwards on the bench. But Znarok needs to get his superstars on the ice and give them more chances to take over the game.
Znarok’s approach looks a lot better against teams with less firepower, like Finland, than it does against a team like Canada. Not paying attention to when Sidney Crosby steps on the ice is a recipe for disaster.
Of course, against Canada’s roster it is very much a “pick your poison” scenario. But foregoing playing the match ups and having players like Nikita Zaitsev or Alexei Emelin on the ice against Canada’s top line is just asking for trouble.
It’s no secret that Russia’s defense is its greatest weakness. But the strategies employed by their coaching staff this tournament could be a close second. Znarok needs to rise to the occasion and put together a gameplan to defeat Canada. Given what we’ve seen from him in this tournament so far, that will be a tall task for the head coach of SKA St. Petersburg.
It’s all up to Bob
Sergei Bobrovsky had 45 saves against Team Canada in their first meeting. He stopped all 11 of Canada’s shots on their four power play chances. Bobrovsky’s superhuman effort was the main reason Russia was able to bring the game to overtime. Given Team Russia’s issues with consistency and exiting their own zone, they’ll undoubtedly need him to steal the show again.
“If your goalie makes key saves, it’s always important to help your teammates in terms of feeling confidence,” veteran defenseman Andrei Markov shared. “It’s huge for us. He’s doing a good job and hopefully he’s going to do the same to the end.”
Bobrovsky has been the best Russian player in the tournament by far. He’s also been the tournament’s best goaltender posting a 0.948 save percentage in three round robin games. Great goaltending can steal hockey games. Fortunately for Russia the ace of up their sleeve on Saturday night is a former Vezina winner.