International Ice Hockey Federation

After the gold rush

After the gold rush

Malkin joins as Russia readies for title defence

Published 28.04.2015 16:41 GMT+2 | Author Martin Merk
After the gold rush
Forward Yevgeni Malkin will be one of the offensive leaders on this year’s Russian national team. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
A year ago Russia swept to gold in Minsk in fine style, overpowering all-comers with some high-octane hockey in Oleg Znarok’s first tournament behind the bench.

Since then, however, the Red Machine has spent a bit of time with the mechanics and Russian fans are anxiously awaiting the outcome of that fine-tuning when their heroes take to the ice in Ostrava against Norway on Friday.

This season’s Euro Hockey Tour saw Russia use 75 different players – and the team ended up bottom of the table for the first time since 1999. But it isn’t quite the crisis it might seem: the new Euro Tour format, and changes to the structure of the KHL season, meant that the emphasis throughout the season was very much on experimentation. Only once, on home ice in Sochi just before Christmas, could Znarok call on all of his KHL-based players – and Russia romped to victory there, winning all three games.


With Sergei Bobrovski and Anton Khudobin arriving in Russia in time to share duties between the piping against Sweden last weekend this is an area where the team looks hot. Bobrovski, a reliable presence in the NHL for several seasons, backstopped Russia to gold last time out, featuring in eight games in Minsk and giving up just nine goals. He claimed 30 wins in 51 appearances for the Blue Jackets and is likely to be the first choice here. Khudobin provides the back-up and the third slot will likely go to Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilievski, so impressive as a World Championship rookie last year, or experienced KHL man Konstantin Barulin.


Typically this is Russia’s weak spot – and watching the team give up four unanswered goals in a first-period failure against Sweden on 24th April did not inspire huge confidence. There are more question marks in this area following Vyacheslav Voinov’s suspension by the NHL after his arrest earlier this year, putting extra pressure on the team’s blue line. The key figure could well be SKA St. Petersburg’s Anton Belov, fresh from lifting the Gagarin Cup with his club. Belov was tempted back to Russia despite earning a fresh contract in Edmonton and quickly reaffirmed his status as one of the most formidable D-men in the KHL. His experience, and that of Ak Bars’ Yevgeni Medvedev, will play a big role, while 24-year-old Dmitri Kulikov comes in from Florida to add further depth.

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As always, the lead up to the Worlds is dominated by ‘will he, won’t he?’ sagas involving Russia’s NHL stars. This year the focus is on Yevgeni Malkin. The Penguins forward is free of play-off commitments but concerns about his fitness led to a week-long guessing game in the Russian media. Znarok admitted that he, ‘like everyone in Russia’, would love to see Malkin pulling on the national team’s jersey. On Sunday, during the locker-room clearout in Pittsburgh, Malkin admitted he could do with a rest even though he is injury free. On Tuesday his agent told Russian journalists that Geno is a true patriot and will do everything he can to help the national team the same day it was finally confirmed that Malkin, along with Vladimir Tarasenko and Nikolai Kulyomin, will be on hand to pep up the offence in the Czech Republic. Fellow NHLers Artyom Anisimov and Valeri Nichushkin also feature.

Back in Russia there’s also great interest in whether SKA St. Petersburg’s Gagarin Cup-winning line of Vadim Shipachyov, Yevgeni Dadonov and Artemi Panarin will deliver the same devastating form at the Worlds. The trio led their club to its first ever domestic triumph, sharing 61 points in 22 games. Dadonov’s 15 goals set a new KHL post-season record. Znarok has yet to confirm whether this troika will line-up together in Ostrava, but he did deploy them in Saturday’s final pre-tournament game against Sweden (2-3 OT).

SKA also supplies Ilya Kovalchuk, fresh from lifting his first ever club honour and hungry for more. Moments after completing a 4-1 final series win over Ak Bars, Kovi spoke of the Russian national team as a ‘sacred duty’ as he looked ahead to the World Championship title defence and he has since been confirmed as team captain in the absence of Alexander Ovechkin, who remains with the Washington Capitals after Monday’s game-seven win over the Islanders. Ovi and team-mate Yevgeni Kuznetsov aren’t the only notable absentees – Alexander Radulov, the explosively talented and sometimes volatile CSKA Moscow forward – is out with an injury after a productive year in the KHL saw him put up 92 points in 62 games across the regular and post seasons.


Oleg Znarok’s tough, uncompromising style has brought big success at club level and his first major tournament with Russia was a flawless run to gold – at least, on the ice. He did court controversy after an ugly bust-up with the Swedish bench during the semi-final and found himself banned for the decider against Finland, but it’s unlikely that the gritty Chelyabinsk native will change a winning formula. His team will be disciplined and well-organized, and they will be no excuses accepted from players who don’t give everything for the team. But after a difficult season in Euro Hockey Tour games, Znarok and his colleagues know that a disappointing World Championship will emphatically end his honeymoon period in the hot seat.


Russia can never go to a World Championship without being mentioned among the favourites, and this year’s is no exception. With fans back home gearing up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the country is in patriotic mood and expects success. The struggles in the Euro Tour may have tempered expectations a little, but today’s news that Malkin is ready to supply the firepower has given fans renewed confidence in their team’s chances. To miss out on gold would be a disappointment; to fail to medal would be a disaster.


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