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Russian goalies in Cup Final can thank Tretiak push for homegrown talent

Vasilevskiy of Lightning or Khudobin of Stars will win title after icon discouraged imports

by Kevin Woodley / NHL.com Independent Correspondent

Vladislav Tretiak is one of the greatest goalies in hockey history and unquestionably the best to come out of Russia, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to hear he played a role in the rise of Russian goalies that has taken center stage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars is the first when starting goalies with roots in Russia have gone head-to-head. Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy was born in Russia, and Dallas' Anton Khudobin was born in Kazakhstan but has played internationally for Russia. When one of them lifts the Cup at the end of the series, he will be the second Russian starter to win an NHL championship, joining Nikolai Khabibulin in 2004 with the Lightning.

Tampa Bay won Game 3 5-2 on Wednesday to take the lead in the best-of-7 series. Game 4 is at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the Cup Final, on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

It will be a fitting end to a record-setting season for Russian goalies in the NHL, a trend many believe will continue, and one that can be traced back to a decision made by Tretiak not long after he was elected President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation in 2006.

"When I got in charge of the federation, we had predominately foreign goalkeepers playing (in the Russian Superleague)," Tretiak told NHL.com. "We couldn't find goalies for the national team for World Championships."

Video: Andrei Vasilevskiy's best plays of the postseason

So Tretiak took steps to ensure there was a place for Russian goalies to play in the Superleague, which became the Kontinental Hockey League in 2008, by introducing a non-Russian goalie tax for teams that wanted to continue importing goalies from other countries.

"The federation said, 'Go ahead and pay us money if you want to have a foreign goalie, or pay nothing and play a Russian goalie,'" said Tretiak, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1989. "This is when (Semyon) Varlamov, (Sergei) Bobrovsky and many others appeared on the stage because many teams couldn't afford to pay and they had to play Russians. And the goalies (still) say thank you to me for that rule."

Varlamov, who played 77 games with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the two seasons after the rule was adopted, was the New York Islanders' No. 1 goalie in the Eastern Conference Final opposite Vasilevskiy. It was the first time three of the final four starting goalies in the NHL conference finals had played for Russia internationally. Varlamov was one of seven Russian goalies to play in the NHL this season, which matched the record set in 2014-15, and the group combined this season for 232 starts and 136 wins, each a single-season NHL record for Russian goalies.

Those numbers could grow again next season with an increase in starts for New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, who made his NHL debut Jan. 7 and was 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 12 games, and the expected arrival of Islanders prospect Ilya Sorokin from the KHL.

There are several other reasons for the ongoing rise of Russian goaltending, including notable improvements in position-specific coaching, but those close to the situation point to the opportunity to play provided by Tretiak's rule change as the biggest change.

"We've got to give a lot of credit to Tretiak because of the rule," said Evgeni Nabokov, who was born in Kazakhstan but played for Russia internationally and is now the San Jose Sharks goaltending coach after playing 10 of his 14 NHL seasons for the Sharks.

"First off, a goalie has to play; everything else is secondary," said Khabibulin, who played 799 NHL games over 18 seasons and now works with goalies on Russia's national teams. "Most of these guys, besides the fact they were talented and creative, a lot of it is that they all got some kind of a chance along the way to play, and they've used it."

Video: DAL@TBL, Gm1: Khudobin shines in Game 1 victory

Goalies who benefited from the rule in the early years have gone on to inspire others to play the position.

That includes Bobrovsky, who played 91 games over three seasons with Metallurg Novokuznetsk of the KHL before signing with the Philadelphia Flyers as an undrafted free agent in 2010. After a trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2012, Bobrovsky became the first Russian to win the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the goalie voted best in the NHL, in 2013. Bobrovsky won the award again with the Blue Jackets in 2017, and Vasilevskiy became the second Russian goalie to win the Vezina Trophy in 2019, inspiring kids back home the same way Patrick Roy did in Quebec, Miikka Kiprusoff did in Finland, and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist has done in Sweden.

"It goes in geographic waves when you have those great role models," said Vancouver Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark, whose ties to Russian goaltending include trips to work with Bobrovsky, running youth and coaching clinics when he was with Columbus, and organizing Tretiak's first appearance at a North American camp in Vancouver in the mid-1980s. "Russian goaltending was already on the upswing, but when you get guys like [Bobrovsky] and Vasilevskiy, they're so prominent and so electrifying and winning the Vezina shone such a bright light on the position and on Russian goaltending, and I think it just created additional momentum."

Khabibulin agreed.

"When a guy wins the Vezina Trophy, he's a superstar," Khabibulin said. "Some guys still want to be (Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni) Malkin and (Lightning forward Nikita) Kucherov, but quite a few want to be Vasilevskiy and Bobrovsky now too."

Those numbers should only increase after a second Russian goalie hoists the Stanley Cup.

"No question," Tretiak said. "It would serve as an inspiration for the young goalies."

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