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New role as underdogs may cure team Russia

by Brad Holland / NHL.com

After getting pasted 0-7-1 in the eight Super Series games, you can bet Russia knew it would have to tinker with its lineup.
Team Russia had been rolling right along with a dozen top-three finishes in the past 13 World Junior Championships. Dominance in both the U-18 and Ivan Hlinka tournaments provided more proof that Russian hockey, at the U-20 level, was unquestionably a world power.

Then, this fall, Russian junior hockey hit a speed bump.

More accurately, the speed bump hit it during the much-anticipated Super Series.

The Russians were pasted, like so many Brandon Sutter bodychecks, in an stretch of eight games that they’d rather forget. Holes were exposed in their national junior team, more holes than had been exposed in the six previous years of international competition.

After getting pasted 0-7-1 in the eight Super Series games, you can bet Russia knew it would have to tinker with its lineup. The Russians have done so. Of the 26 skaters on the Super Series’ roster, only 13 have been brought back to compete for the World Junior Championship.

A full half of the Super Series roster has been replaced, for the most part, with more experienced, veteran players. The Russian side is one of the oldest in the tournament, with the majority of the team made up of ’88 birth year skaters, players who may not have competed for their international teams in the past, but nonetheless have a lot of experience at a high level of hockey.

The new roster will be called upon to inject back into Russian hockey the measure of pride that was taken from the program this summer. Team Russia, in all its incarnations, is the most successful country ever to compete in the WJC. It has earned 14 golds, 9 silvers and 5 bronze medals in the 34 years of the tournament, failing to medal only six times in the history of the event.

Management for Team Russia is hoping that veteran skaters and a refreshed team will be able to return the program to the stature to which it has become accustomed.

Leadership

With only four skaters returning from the team that claimed silver at last year’s WJC, , coach Jevgenij Popichyn will be relying on his most experienced and talented players to lead the group.

Alexei Cherepanov, Popichyn’s most dangerous forward, joins 2008 top prospect Vyacheslav Voinov as the only Russian skater to have skated with last year’s WJC team, the 2007 U-18 team that claimed gold and this summer’s Super Series team. Cherepanov, an ’89 and Voynov, a ’90, are young but experienced, and each has the talent to be a game-breaker for the Russian side.

Popichyn will not have a true superstar at his deploy, as past Russian coaches have had with skaters like Pavel Bure, Alexander Ovechkin, Maxim Afinogenov, Evgeni Malkin, and others -- but that might just be a blessing in disguise.

The Russians will know right from the get-go that they will have to compete and win as a team if they are going to make noise in this tournament; instead of relying on one superstar to carry the load.

Forwards

Russian hockey has always been known for its forwards, especially for its wingers – dangerous, quick-skating, highly offensive players with a flair around the net, skaters who love to play an all-out attacking style. This group is no different, but it lacks a true game-breaker, the sort of guy who can stylistically dominate a game.

Russia will require offense from a number of different outlets, and a pair of future Rangers will have to be on top of their game if it expects to challenge for gold. The first of the two, Alexei Cherepanov is their most-gifted offensive threat, but he also has the habit of taking shifts off, and can disappear for long stretches of a game. He scored five goals -- four on the power play -- and eight points in last season’s WJC, and was selected as the tournament’s top forward, which shows just how dangerous he can be.

Cherepanov also became, somewhat begrudgingly, the most oft-highlighted clip from the Super Series this summer. Skating down the wall, he cut to the middle and ran smack into Canadian forward Sutter. The check knocked him out of the competition, and may have affected him far worse than anybody had guessed. After amassing record-like numbers in the Russian Superleague last season, he is off to a very modest start in 2007-08 with only seven goals and seven assists through 28 games.

The 2008 WJC could serve as a statement set of games in Cherepanov’s development, the sort of tournament that could jump-start his game once again.

The other Blueshirt prospect, and a player that many consider to be of the game-breaker variety, is forward Artem Anisimov. He will also be a key cog in the Russian machine. Like Cherepanov, he has an impressive skill set and a nose for the net; but, unlike Cherepanov, he is more responsible defensively and can play in both ends of the ice. A big, rangy, two-way talent, Anisimov will be looked upon to carry the team’s second line, and may end up being its most reliable leader.

A second tier of Russian scorers then emerges, with any one a possible scoring threat; including Viktor Tikonov, Maxim Mamin, Evgeny Dadonov (FLA, 2007), Ilya Kablukov, Yevgeny Bodrov, and a trio of wild-card youngsters: Dimitri Kugryshev, Anton Lazarev and perhaps the most exciting of the Russian underagers, Nikita Filatov.

Filatov is small -- 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds -- but he, like so many of his Russian brethren, boasts high-end offensive skills. He should go high in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft this summer. Filatov was a top scorer at both the U-18 and Ivan Hlinka tournaments in 2007, and while he was on the Super Series roster, he saw very limited ice time. This could be the first chance many in the North American hockey community have to see just what Filatov is capable of doing.

Defense

The Russian defense is a mobile group, adept at moving the puck up and out of the zone. However, it may not be well equipped to handle the bigger teams -- the Canadians and the Americans, most notably -- down low in the defensive zone.

The top talent on the Russian blueline -- and one of its most experienced players -- is also one of its youngest. Voynov, the top-ranked European skater in the CSB Preliminary Rankings and consensus No. 1 Russian skater in this years’ draft, looks to be the complete package for the Russian team. He quarterbacked the power play in the Super Series, he boasts a dangerous one-timer, has impressive vision for such a young skater, and, to top it all off, he has a bit of a mean streak. He was kicked out of one Super Series game this past summer for a questionable hit on a Canadian skater.

Voynov will be joined by Yuri Alexandrov (BOS, 2006) -- the only other Russian defenseman to have skated in both the 2007 WJC and the Super Series -- as well as ’88s Pavel Doronin, Evgeny Kurbatov, and Maxim Chudinov, who is another highly ranked prospect for 2008. These four skaters each competed in the Super Series, as well.

Andrei Kolesnikov, Nikolai Lukyanchikov, Yakov Seleznev (2008), Marat Kalimullin and Valeri Zhukov round out the Russian defense.

Goaltenders

The story on the Russian goaltending situation changed significantly when the Russian roster was announced and Semen Varlamov (WSH, 2006) -- widely considered the best goaltending prospect to come out of Russia since Nikolai Khabibulin -- wasn’t on it.

Varlamov was a first-round NHL Draft pick two years ago, and the starting goaltender for last years’ WJC.

During the 2007 WJC, Varlamov played to a 1.51 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage and lost only one game -- to Team Canada in the gold-medal game. But he struggled this past summer in the Super Series and Russian management has elected to go a different direction for 2008.

Against the Canadians in the Super Series, Sergei Bobrovsky was brilliant at times, but was generally overmatched by the Canadian assault.

Sergei Bobrovsky (2008), who skates for a SuperLeague team in a backup role, is also the Russian goaltender who saw the most minutes at the Super Series. He could emerge as the Russians’ front-line goaltender. Against the Canadians in the Super Series, Bobrovsky was brilliant at times, but was generally overmatched by the Canadian assault. In that stretch of games, he played 240 minutes and skated to a 5.25 GAA and a .853 save percentage while amassing an 0-3 record.

He and Stanislav Galimov (2008) are the entire list of Russian goalies on Central Scouting’s Preliminary Rankings this year. Neither enters the tournament as a clear-cut starter, so the job will likely go to whichever of the two plays better early.

Intangibles

Five of the past six gold-medal games has seen a Russia/Canada final, and while the Russians won the first two, they have been defeated handily in the past three. Scores of 6-1, 5-0, and 4-2 were actually more flattering than the way the games played out. Couple that with their failure this summer and one can see just how desperate the Russians will be this time.

The Russians will not have the talent to run-and-gun with the more offensively gifted teams in 2008 – Sweden, the Czech Republic and Canada – and so Team Russia will be skating into unfamiliar territory; as underdogs in a tournament they’ve dominated since its inception.

That new role as the underdog, and an absence of a game-breaking superstar, could be the perfect panacea for the program. The Russian team will have to build out a balanced attack, relying on its top guns but not falling into dependency on those players as the club attempts to regroup from the Super Series debacle.

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