OHL's junkyard dogs await Russia in next leg of Super Series
Teenaged hockey players are a lot like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never quite know what you're going to get.
In its win over Team QMJHL to open the 2012 Subway Super Series, the Russian selects played like a Slavic version of the 1977-78 Montreal Canadians. Quick, cunning, explosive and backstopped by a giant and virtually unbeatable keeper, they trounced the Quebec league's best, 6-2.
And then two different teams showed up two nights later. Led by 10 points from the line of Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Huberdeau and Jonathan Drouin, and a game plan that clogged the middle to negate their opponent's size and skill disadvantage, the Q triumphed 5-2 to snap a five-game losing streak against Russia.
It was a stark illustration that no single game should ever weigh too heavily in the evaluation of a prospect. It also served as a reminder that anything could happen on when the Ontario Hockey League looks to build on a perfect 18-0 mark against the Russians (Thursday, 7 PM EST, NHL Network in the U.S., Sportsnet in Canada).
No doubt those inconsistencies caught the attention of Steve Spott, who'll be behind the bench in Guelph. But Spott, who'll also coach Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, has considerably more talent at his disposal than did QMJHL coach Andre Tourigny. He also has a few junkyard dogs who can ramp us his team's energy and take advantage of a Russian team that's playing its third game in four nights.
After having the WJC gold all but conceded to them in the opener, the Russians looked the part of a tired team in Game 2, showing little of the desire and creativity that marked their first performance. That has to be a concern for coach Mikhail Varnakov, who needs to take some of the blame for not adapting to Tourigny's Game 2 plan.
Varnakov's lineup in Guelph should get a lift from some fresh legs, including Nikita Zadorov -- a 6-5, 230-pound defender who is projected to go mid-first round -- and Daniil Zharkov, the 6-4, 212-pound winger who promised he'd be better than Nail Yakupov after being selected 91st overall by the Edmonton Oilers last summer. Yaroslav Kosov, one of the more effective Russians in the opener, also should be back in the lineup after sitting as a healthy scratch in Game 2.
All three of those players play a sandpapery game, an element that was clearly missing in Wednesday's loss. Kosov, a 6-3, 220-pound Florida Panthers pick, and Zharkov are loads down low and could help the Russians get something going on a power play that was 0-6 in Game 2 and 1-for-10 to start the tour.
They should help, but what Varnakov really needs is a transcendent performance from his marquee player, Yakupov.
An intermittent presence in the opener, Yakupov was reduced to an empty sweater two nights later by the tenacious checking of Charles Hudon (who may have improved his own WJC chances with that performance). The sledding won't get any easier for Yakupov in Ontario, with Philadelphia Flyers' first-rounder Scott Laughton or Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Boone Jenner likely to draw the defensive assignment.
Yakupov, who spent two seasons in Sarnia, is much better than this. He can't just produce in these next two games. He has to lead if Russia is going to have a chance against a very deep team from Ontario. He was the first overall pick last June, but the OHL can count 26 NHL draft picks among the 34 players it will dress for the two games. Eight who will skate on Thursday night are first-rounders. Seven firsts will play in Sarnia on Monday, and nearly half of the players who will dress during the two contests are in the mix to get a red and white jersey for Christmas.
Canada's most pressing questions are in goal, and these two games could reveal the answers. Malcolm Subban, the Boston Bruins' first-round pick in 2012, is all but a lock for a spot, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him split Thursday's game with Jordan Binnington. The OHL's top goalie for October is up for a part, but he'll need to be sensational here to prove that he's up to the challenge.
Binnington is one of just six players who will see action in both games. Veteran center Ryan Strome (New York Islanders) is on hand for his leadership, but the long looks given to Matt Puempel (Ottawa Senators), Tyler Graovac (Minnesota Wild), and Josh Leivo and Stuart Percy (both Toronto Maple Leafs) stress their bubble positions. This may be their last best chance to impress Hockey Canada ahead of the WJC.
While a Canadian roster spot is a recurring theme, the first priority is to maintain an 18-game winning streak. Thursday's lineup features an obvious emphasis on defense. Spott's blueline will feature four first-rounders: Cody Ceci (Ottawa Senators), Slater Koekkoek (Tampa Bay Lightning), Ryan Murphy (Carolina Hurricanes) and Percy, along with Toronto second-rounder Matt Finn.
Up front, the spotlight will be on Connor MacDavid, the youngest player in major junior hockey. A late add to the roster as an injury replacement, the 15-year-old has lived up to his exceptional billing with 21 points in 18 games for Erie. Sean Monahan, a big, two-way center from Ottawa who is expected to be a top-five pick next June, might not see a lot of ice time but he'll be the player all the scouts are watching.
The lineup in Sarnia on Monday features a mix of NHL-ready talent -- Strome, Dougie Hamilton (Bruins), Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets) and Scott Harrington (Pittsburgh Penguins) -- along with Kerby Rychel and Max Domi, a pair of likely 2013 first-rounders whose skill levels far exceed those of their famous fathers.
It's no coincidence that the stock of Anthony Camara and Seth Griffith, two mid-round picks by the Bruins, is rising after the first month of the season, along with hard-hitting Adam Pelech (Islanders) and Tom Wilson (Washington Capitals) who are being held back until Monday's game. If the Russians manage to pull off the upset in Guelph, these four could knock the starch out of them early in the rematch.