OSTRAVA, Czech Republic - Heading into the tournament, I saw Russia as a gold-medal favorite, along with the United States. The Russians had everything you would want in a roster and really the only question revolved around goaltending: would 17-year-old phenom Yaroslav Askarov be the starter, or would veteran coach Valeri Bragin rely on the older Amir Miftakhov?
As it turns out, both ended up playing in the round robin and while both had their ups and downs, it feels like Askarov could indeed win this whole thing while Miftakhov could also get the job done if need be.
As for the rest of the team? Seeing their masterful destruction of Germany in the final round-robin game confirmed that Russia has what it takes to run the table here.
“When we play simple,” said center and Minnesota Wild pick Alexander Khovanov, “when everyone knows their roles, it’s much more easy.”
Now, you may think that waxing Germany proves little, but this was not your typical relegation round-bound opponent. Germany boasts some high-end NHL talent (led by Detroit Red Wings prospect defenseman Moritz Seider, who still looks like the real deal) and a couple more potential first-round picks this summer. They also had a victory over the host Czechs on their resume - a team Russia lost to earlier in the tournament.
But the New Year’s Eve game was not close. Russia held the puck in the offensive zone for long stretches and the team’s skilled forwards ran wild, with Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Kirill Marchenko tallying two goals and five points in the 6-1 wipeout. Vegas Golden Knights pick Pavel Dorofyev also had a pair and captain Grigori Denisenko (FLA) scored too, so everyone is going right now.
Not only that, but the defense gave little away either. Russia surrendered just 23 shots on net and the one goal by Nino Kinder came in the third on a play when Askarov made an Original Six-style diving poke-check attempt that went awry. One particular highlight for the ‘D’ was Montreal Canadiens prospect Alexander Romanov crushing 2020 draft prospect J.J. Peterka with a big hit at the defensive blueline in the second period. So yes, heavy hockey is in right now.
“It’s our strength - we can play hard and we’ve got some big guys on our team,” said power forward Egor Sokolov. “It was really important for us to crash the net and score on the power play too, obviously. It brought our confidence up and now we’re ready for the quarterfinal.”
If there was any nitpicking to do from an outsider’s perspective, the Russians did take a number of penalties against the Germans - it just didn’t happen to matter on that particular night. Having said that, Marchenko still believes this team can get better.
“Of course discipline is key, but we have a lot of things to improve on,” he said through a translator. “All our opponents will be tougher now.”
It begins with the Swiss in the quarterfinal, a program that has sometimes given Russia fits in the past. Anything can happen in the quarterfinal of the world juniors (just ask Canada), so the Russians cannot take the Swiss lightly. But the Big Red Machine does have a statement win over Canada and some positive momentum from the German game to work with. They’re big, they’re talented and they’re experienced and at this point, I wouldn’t bet against them.
“We’re in a good position right now,” said Sokolov. “We’re ready to go and we’re going to keep rolling.”
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