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Team Russia sees room for improvement

by NHL Media / Chicago Blackhawks

Although Team Russia held on to defeat Team Czech Republic 4-3 in its first World Cup of Hockey 2016 pretournament game in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, it saw plenty of room for improvement.

That was the focus Friday as it prepared for its rematch with Team Czech Republic at O2 Arena in Prague on Saturday (10:30 a.m. ET; ESPN3, SN360, TVA Sports).

"I think like every first game, there's positive and negatives," Team Russia defenseman Dmitry Kulikov said Friday. "We stuck to our system pretty well and what the coaches told us to do. I think we executed the game plan pretty well. Obviously it was the first [pretournament] game and we made some mental mistakes maybe. We had some technical mistakes and the puck was bouncing here and there. But I think overall we did pretty well in the first game and we've got to build up on it."

Other than winning the game, the positives for Team Russia included how it controlled play and pressured Team Czech Republic in its in end for much of the first two periods. The line of Artemi Panarin, Vadim Shipachyov and Evgeny Dadonov demonstrated the chemistry that made it one of the most dangerous lines in the Kontinental Hockey League before Panarin left to join the Chicago Blackhawks last season.

Panarin, Shipachyov and Dadonov combined for two goals and four assists in the game. Dadonov's one-timer from the right circle at 8:48 of the third period proved to be the winning goal.

"They have a connection, obviously, and it's not a surprise," Team Russia captain Alex Ovechkin said. "They're going to play like that all tournament long."

When asked about areas Team Russia needs to improve, Ovechkin's answer began with his line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nikita Kucherov. Although Kucherov had a goal and an assist, they combined for three shots on goal.

Ovechkin had one shot on goal after averaging an NHL-best 5.0 per game with the Washington Capitals last season.

"I think our line needs to play better and find a connection in the offensive zone," Ovechkin said. "But it was the first game after a long time [not playing]. It's going to be better every game."

On the defensive end, Team Russia struggled getting the puck out of its end in the third period, when it was outshot 14-5. Being more crisp moving the puck from the defensemen to its skilled forwards is going to be essential for Team Russia to have success.

"We just have to play together," Kulikov said. "If everyone is on the same page and knows what we're doing on the ice it's easier to read off of each other. If we talk and do the little things right, get the puck out of zone as quickly as possible and don't spend too much time wasting energy defending and get the puck to our forwards, I think we're going to be in good shape."

Team Russia defensemen are well aware of the doubts some have about them. A group that includes Kulikov, Alexei Emelin, Dmitry Orlov, Alexey Marchenko, Andrei Markov and Nikita Nesterov is greatly overshadowed by Team Russia's star power at forward, including Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Kucherov, Panarin, Evgeni Malkin, Vladimir Tarasenko and Pavel Datsyuk.

"We don't have a lot of big names, but the players that we have, they're very competitive," Kulikov said. "The guys want to prove something, I'm guessing, [because of] all the talk that we had before the World Cup. Nobody really counted on our defense and we want to prove that we're a very capable group. So we have to be strong defensively and get the puck to our forwards because that's going to be our strength."

Goaltending also is a potential strength for Team Russia. After Sergei Bobrovsky made 29 saves Thursday, it will be Semyon Varlamov's turn to audition for the No. 1 goalie job on Saturday.

Varlamov will face Michal Neuvirth, who will start for Team Czech Republic after Petr Mrazek played Thursday. Varlamov and Neuvirth started their professional careers in the Washington Capitals organization together. Varlamov now plays for the Colorado Avalanche, Neuvirth for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Ovechkin said he is aware of Neuvirth's abilities.

"He's obviously a very good goalie," Ovechkin said. "He played against us last year [in the Stanley Cup Playoffs] and played well. But right now we're trying to find our lines and find our game timing a little bit more."

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