Here are five storylines to follow as Team Russia heads to Vancouver and Victoria, BC, to face the Western Hockey League's finest in the final two matches of the 2012 Subway Super Series. Game 5 goes Wednesday night in Vancouver (10 p.m. EST, NHL Network in the U.S.; Sportsnet in Canada) with the finale playing out Thursday in Victoria (same time and channels).
The CHL has owned this tournament since it began back in 2003, capturing each of the first seven. But the Russians have come on hard, winning 4-2 in 2010 and splitting the series in 2011.
The WHL has struggled of late, losing three of its last four to the Russians while allowing 22 goals in the process. These games should be tighter and lower scoring as both sides rely on their defenses to come away with bragging rights.
It's not a surprising strategy, at least in the sense that the more passive system they employed at the 2012 WJC and at the four-game summer junior summit series allowed Canada too much control deep in Russian territory. Sticking with that approach would have been courting disaster.
Still, this was a team touted as perhaps the most talented to be iced by the Russians in the history of this tournament, a belief that was reinforced after it lit up Team QMJHL for six goals in the opener. Since then, though, Varnakov's charges have scratched out just five while losing two of the next three games. The power play is in shambles, and there's so little cohesion up front that any offensive chances the Russians create come from a superlative individual effort like Anton Schenfeld's goal in Game 3 vs. the OHL, rather than a team tactic.
Some of the stars,� most obviously first overall NHL pick Nail Yakupov,� are visibly straining against Varnakov's leash, suggesting the WJC team might be yet another Russian side whose sum is far less than its parts.
Team WHL captain Ryan Murray (second overall pick of 2012, Columbus Blue Jackets) is a lock to join Dougie Hamilton and Scott Harrington, both of whom skated for Team OHL in Monday's 2-1 win. Beyond that however, it's wide open, giving the other five first-rounders that the WHL will dress on its blueline the next two nights a real chance to make an impression.
A trio of 2012 first-rounders -- Griffin Reinhart (fourth overall, New York Islanders), Morgan Rielly (fifth, Toronto Maple Leafs), and Matt Dumba (seventh, Minnesota Wild)� will get long looks skating in both games. Duncan Siemens (Colorado Avalanche, 11th, 2011), a longshot after a tumultuous start to his season in Saskatoon, will skate Wednesday in Vancouver. Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh Penguins, eighth, 2012), who is probably setting himself up for a spot in 2014, takes Siemens' place in the lineup in Victoria.
Rielly and Dumba are the favorites to make the cut, which puts the pressure on Reinhart, who needs to show something over the next two nights to banish any concerns that are rising from his sluggish start with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Now Hunter Shinkaruk and Curtis Lazar, both A-rated prospects by Central Scouting, will get their chance to prove themselves for Team WHL.
Shinkaruk, a 5-11, 166-pound center with the Medicine Hat Tigers, is on a tear with 10 points in his last six games and stands tied for fourth in league scoring with 33 points in 22 games. His size, speed and finishing touch have earned him comparisons to Patrick Kane.
Lazar, with 14 points in 21 games for the Oil Kings, isn't quite as flashy as Shinkaruk, but he's a more complete player. At 6-0, 198, he's like a smaller Jonathan Toews, ferociously competitive in all three zones.
Neither player is expected to fall out of the top 10 in what's regarded as a very deep NHL draft, but a strong performance against top-flight competition could bolster their standings.
Lazar is slated to play in both games, but if you want to catch Shinkaruk in action, you'll have to tune in to Wednesday night's game.
Was he tired at the Memorial Cup? Maybe. He played 85 games last season, a ridiculous workload by any measure. Was it simply an off night against Russia? These things happen. But Hockey Canada can't afford to take a chance.
Brossoit, a Calgary Flames prospect, has been fine so far this season for Edmonton, but "fine" is a quality that has plagued Canadian goaltending over the past three World Junior tournaments. Right now, Furcale seems like the most intriguing choice, but the 19-year-old Brossoit has the experience that could give him an edge.
He'll likely see action in both games. With two last chances to soothe Hockey Canada's concerns, he needs to be brilliant in both.