Team Russia is in a happy place right now. The only remaining unbeaten country at this year’s World Championship is looking good for yet another medal, and the atmosphere around the locker room is decidedly upbeat.
Sunday’s practice, a voluntary skate to give extra ice time to the team’s new arrivals, underlined the point. While the bulk of the roster, the guys who have carried the heavy loads in Cologne, took a break, a handful of players stayed on the ice. CSKA’s Ilya Sorokin, expected to start his first game in net against Latvia this evening, took on goaltending duties as new arrivals Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov joined recent addition Valery Nichushkin and fit-again Artemy Panarin in a three-on-three scrimmage. Coaches Harijs Vitolins and Ilya Vorobyov made up the numbers for a light-hearted session that reminded onlookers that – at its heart – hockey is a game to be enjoyed.
It was a different look for the Russians. Throughout the tournament, Oleg Znarok’s roster has played with ruthless, almost mechanical efficiency. The Red Machine is rolling through the gears, and back home the media has been talking up similarities between the class of 2017 and the all-powerful USSR teams of old. Sunday’s session showed that as well as the serious business of winning championships, Russia’s players are also a happy team.
Kuznetsov, who only flew in from Washington at the weekend, underlined the point. After training, he told reporters: “It was important to get out on the ice. I haven’t played that kind of three-on-three hockey for a long time, I think it’s only in Russia that teams do that in practice.
“There’s a really good atmosphere in the team. All the guys are laughing and joking among themselves, there’s no room for unhappy faces. I’m all for it, this way even a misfortune can turn into a positive.”
For Orlov, like Kuznetsov still shrugging off the disappointment of NHL playoff defeat in Washington, and the happy mood in the locker room is helping with that.
“Losing to Pittsburgh was a blow and I’m getting over that,” he said. “Joining up with the national team demands a positive outlook. Sunday, I got some sleep and had a skate, because I’d not been on the ice for a couple of days. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow. In the past I’ve adapted quickly to the big ice, so hopefully everything will be fine.”
Assistant coach Harijs Vitolins explained that Kuznetsov would most likely slot into the roster as a center, at least for Monday’s meeting with the Latvians. He also confirmed that Ilya Sorokin would make his first start of the championship, replacing Andrei Vasilevsky in goal. Panarin is set to return after missing out against Slovakia due to injury, while Orlov comes straight into the line-up on defense and could be asked to take a role on the power play. Anton Belov is set to continue as captain in place of the injured Sergei Mozyakin.
Vitolins was also looking forward to wrapping up the group stage with two tough games against Latvia and the USA. Even though Russia has already secured a quarter-final place, the SKA man reckons there’s plenty still to play for.
“We’ve seen how Latvia gave Sweden and the Americans a tough game, they’re playing well in this championship and [head coach Bob Hartley] has got them playing a real Canadian style,” Vitolins said. “It’s good that we’re finishing the group stage with two big games against strong opponents. It will help us reach peak form ahead of the knock-out rounds.”