BRATISLAVA – The year 2010 wasn’t very good for Russia. First there was the disappointing - and shocking - loss to Team Canada in the Vancouver Olympics, and then, a few months later, with almost the same team, an equally disappointing and shocking loss to the Czechs in the 2010 World Championship final.
The disappointment was felt even in Kremlin, and it seemed like head coach Vyacheslav Bykov might have to leave his post. Or, even worse.
No need to worry, Bykov is back behind the bench, and he’s got his trusted core group of players with him. Alexei Morozov is back as the captain, Ilya Kovalchuk is gunning for his third World Championship in four years, as is Alexander Radulov, who was the runaway winner of the KHL scoring title, with 80 points in 54 games.
And then there’s Yevgeni Nabokov, who backstopped Russia to their first World Championship gold in 15 years in 2008. The San Jose Sharks former goaltender signed a four-year contract with SKA St. Petersburg last fall, struggled, signed with the Detroit Red Wings in late January, but was claimed by the New York Islanders and didn’t report. That didn’t stop Bykov from making Nabokov his goalie in the World Championship.
Just like in 2008. Just like old times.
Vyacheslav Bykov is famous for his pokerface behind the bench, but his decision to choose Nabokov over Ilya Bryzgalov makes him look like a true gambling man. Last year, Nabokov played three and a half games in the Olympics with a 85.29 save percentage, and a 4.16 GAA. This season, his save percentage in the 22 KHL games was 88.8.
But he’s also the goalie who ranked second in regular season wins and had the sixth best save percentage in the NHL in 2009-10, and he will surely be the most motivated guy on the Russian team. He wants to prove Bykov right.
Nabokov will be backed up by Konstantin Barulin and Vasili Koshechkin. Barulin led the KHL in GAA with 1.91, and Koshechkin was second in save percentage in the post-season with 94.6, behind Team Finland’s Petri Vehanen.
Another sign of deep loyalty between the coach and the players is Russia’s blueline which practically hasn’t changed since last year’s tournament, with six defencemen returning to the World Championship: Dmitri Kalinin, Ilya Nikulin, Konstantin Korneyev, Alexei Yemelin, Vitali Atyushov, and Dmitri Kulikov.
Kalinin, Nikulin, and Korneyev have played in all World Championships since 2008, and they also played in the Olympics as did Fedor Tyutin, who missed the World Championship last season, but is back on the team in Bratislava.
Russian defence always has to do its work in the shadow of the nation’s flashy forwards, but they get the job done.
Ilya Kovalchuk may be mortal. The 28-year-old forward collected only 60 points in 81 games with the New Jersey Devils, a disappoinment, but like with the rest of the Russian team, he’s hoping to make 2011 a much better year than 2010. And he’s of to a decent start, getting 40 of his 60 points since January 1. Even with his sub-par year, he’s still a point-a-game player in his NHL career. And naturally, he’s still a weapon for the Russians. He scored the World Championship winning goal in 2008, was elected tournament MVP in 2009, and collected 12 points in last year’s ten games.
In the 2008 World Championship, he only scored two goals. The last two of the entire tournament: the one that took the final into overtime, and the game winner.
This time, Kovalchuk can focus on being Ilya, scoring goals, getting points, since the team is captained once again by Alexei Morozov, the 2007 tournament Best Forward. He scored 56 points in 53 KHL games this season, sixth in the league. Morozov did get 21 goals, one more that Alexander Radulov.
Keep an eye on 19-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko. At the World U20 Championship this year, he scored the goal that took the final into overtime, then assisted on the game winning goal.
Funny how some games weigh so much more than others. Vyacheslav Bykov has coached the Russian national team in four World Championships, winning two gold medals, one silver, and one bronze. He also coached his Salavat Yulayev Ufa to the KHL title this year, but he will still have to answer to questions about that quarterfinal game against Canada in Vancouver. Possibly the only thing that can erase that would be an equally big win in Sochi.
Bykov has traditionally given ice time to all four lines, with no one or few players logging more that 18-19 minutes a game. He brought a different kind of order to chaos when he took the job as head coach. He’s got Russia to play as a team, and he never wavers in his faith in his players. Then it’s their time to deliver.
Once again, Russia is one of the big favorites to go all the way. They may hit some speed bumps along the way, but nobody should be shocked to see them in the final. Once there, anything can happen, and they know it, too. In 2008, they rallied back to win the gold in OT, last year, the Czechs stunned them, having made their way to the final through two penalty shootouts.