|2009 Continental Hockey League (KHL)|
A gold Top 5 – analyzing the reasons that brought the victory to Team Russia
May 18th is going to be a big day for the Russians. The first World Championship gold medal in 15 years has been even called “the biggest event in our sport after the fall of the Soviet Union”. But once the hangover is passed one can analyze things a bit better.
Let’s start by going back one year. In Moscow 2007, Bykov’s team was only one overtime away from the final, unfortunately leaving the opportunity to challenge Canada to Finland. Weak play by the defense and goalkeeper Eremenko was exploited by Minnesota Wild’s Mikko Koivu, leaving the Russians with their heads down on the ice. They eventually earned the bronze medals, but losing in the semifinals on the home soil was a huge disappointment, though not comparable to 2000’s débâcle in St. Petersburg.
Reason #5 – The desire
With the World Championship played in Canada, Russia had an unique chance to face their oldest and biggest rival in their home soil. It was then a great combination for revenge, since Canada did win the gold in Moscow, but not against the sbornaya. Furthermore the Russian squad was also motivated by the drive to be the best in an unfriendly place. On top of that, you should also add the IIHF centenary that added further glitz to the whole picture. There was then a huge desire in all players on the squad to win.
Being in Canada heavily impacted the composition of the Russian roster. With many Russian stars playing abroad in the National Hockey League, Bykov and his staff had to do less to convince players spending an additional month playing hockey because they would remain closer to their homes and their families. This must had some effects upon Nabokov’s and Fedorov’s decisions. Fedorov in particular didn’t play for the national team at the World Championship since 1990, when Soviet Union skated past Sweden in Switzerland. Sergei did represent his own country, but in other competitions including Olympic Games and the World Cup. Other than that, Alexander Radulov (Nashville Predators) is an idol in Quebec as he is a record breaker with Patrick Roy’s local junior team of the Quebec Remparts.
Reason #4 – The roster
The Russian roster was definitely among the top ones at the tournament. As already said in the fifth point, the roster has been assembled with a bit more easiness this year due to the fact that the tournament was in North America and so the NHL players could stay closer to home. Bykov and his assistant Igor Zakharkin have called twenty-five players, fourteen of them coming from the Russian Superleague. Eleven NHLers isn’t a big number compared for example to fifteen of Finland and sixteen of Czech Republic, but it’s on the line with Sweden (ten) and was clearly enough. One could argue that Russians had a strong roster in Moscow too, but there are two reasons to claim this year’s roster to be the best one. First is obvious, goaltending. Nabokov is of course a better goalkeeper than Aleksandr Eremenko and his strong play has been recognized with the “Best Goalkeeper” award. Biryukov has also showed that he’s a reliable netminder after the big concerns that followed Eremenko’s injury against Czech Republic. However, he is still very young and remained largely unproven at the international level against NHL calibre talent. The second reason is the better mix of youth and experience assembled for the trip to Canada. Leadership of Sergei Fedorov, Daniil Markov and Maxim Sushinsky has been complemented perfectly by young exuberance of the likes of the three Alex’s – Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), Alexander Radulov (Nashville Predators) and Alexander Semin (Washington Capitals).
Reason #3 – The new course of the National Team
For a number of reasons, the Russian National team has been a bit neglected since the 90s, when Russian hockey (and not only) hit on hard times after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Things started changing last year, when legend goalkeeper Vyacheslav Tretyak has been elected as President of the Russian Hockey Federation. His main aim has always been the strength of the national team. In order to obtain that, he made some controversial moves, like declaring with immediate effect all players from the former CIS without a Russian passport foreigners and a turn of the screw about non-Russian goalkeepers. While we can’t really yet declare that Tretyak’s reforms as good or bad for Russian hockey, we should simply stick to the fact that the interest for the national team and the level of the domestic league has risen significantly since Tretyak’s instalment. And with the new KHL things can only further improve.
Reason #2 – Kovalchuk’s double
Ilya Kovalchuk’s key-double in the finals has been really the difference maker in the finals. Arriving from a disappointing regular NHL season despite finishing high in the league’s scoring race, Ilya put zero pucks in the net during the World Championships tournament. You can argue that it’s always good to collect an assist, but if Kovalchuk doesn’t score then he’s not doing his job. This is the difference between a good and a great player. A great player – like Ilya is without any shadow of doubt – scores when he has to, and he really had to throw those two pucks into Canada’s net. Kovalchuk’s first goal reversed the momentum in favour of Russia. Desperate for a goal, Bykov’s guys were pushing the gas and when Ilya created the opportunity, Ward could only pick up the puck from the back of the net. In the overtime period he eventually scored a historic world championship winning goal after Rick Nash was penalized for delay of game. That said, it’s evident that Kovalchuk’s double has been really instrumental for the Gold Medal. A thing that most of Russians will never forget.
And to think that prior to the final game some people were even discussing his potential scratch from the final’s roster!
Reason #1 – Vyacheslav Bykov
Yes. We recognize the superb work of the Head Coach of the Russian national team Vyacheslav Bykov as the main reason for the recent Russian triumph in Canada. Even more important than Kovalchuk’s show.
But why? Let’s analyze.
Despite all the things said earlier about national team’s neglecting, Russians always had a strong roster. Names-wise, it was always among the best three or four. The missing pieces of the puzzle were always coaching and team chemistry. The Olympic team for example, was probably even stronger than this one, with Kovalev, Malkin and others, but Krikunov’s coaching style wasn’t really anywhere as compatible with NHL players as Bykov’s, despite being him not a bad coach at all, his palmarès speaks for himself.
There are several reasons for this too. First of all he is a very good coach himself. A very good plus is the fact that he played for more than ten years in the West, managing to add to usual Russian style and mentality with some Western flavor, as was evident especially during the final game against the Canadians. Differently from Krikunov (and others) he also understood that he needed to adopt to survive.
But after all the chats, one thing remain: Russia is the World Champion in Ice Hockey. Now the work must be done in order for Russia to remain on the top of the hockey world.
- Alessandro Seren Rosso (RussianProspects.com)