Andy Potts,
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Russia wrapped up a hugely satisfying Channel 1 Cup campaign with a third successive victory, defeating Finland 3-0 in Sunday’s concluding game. Goals from Sergei Andronov, Maxim Shalunov and Valery Nichushkin secured the win. The tournament in Moscow was the final dress rehearsal ahead of February’s Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, and the results reinforced the status of Oleg Znarok’s team as favorite for the gold medal in Korea.

Grounds for optimism

The biggest plus from the tournament was the quality of Russia’s goaltending. Both Vasily Koshechkin and Ilya Sorokin performed strongly as the Red Machine allowed just one goal in three games. Koshechkin, vastly experienced from his years at Metallurg, was unbeatable in the face of a vigorous Canadian offense on Saturday before CSKA’s youngster Sorokin blanked a Finnish team that had defeated Russia in Helsinki just over a month ago. In the past, there have been questions about Russia between the piping; this time, perhaps, there are answers as well.

It wasn’t just about denying the opposition, though. Russia showed a degree of strength in adversity that bodes well. In the opening game against Sweden, the team recovered from allowing an early goal; the Canadians dominated the first two periods before falling in the third. The loss of Vadim Shipachyov early in the Canada game did not disrupt Russia’s rhythm. The contrast between this confidence and the anxiety that gripped the team on its last Olympic adventure in Sochi was clear.


Cause for concern

Throughout the Channel 1 Cup, Russia’s power play struggled to deliver. For Znarok, this was a side-effect of his team’s lack of preparation time; those special teams simply weren’t on the same wavelength yet, while the absence of Pavel Datsyuk this week also removed one weapon from the PP arsenal. Without Russia’s Magic Man, and with lines rotating to test different combinations, Ilya Kovalchuk’s contribution was also relatively muted. With a long pause in the run-up to the Olympics, there is time to improve.

The other issue, raised by CSKA’s Nikita Nesterov, reflected the reliance on the goaltending excellence of Koshechkin and Sorokin. “Our goalies did great, and we really owe them,” he said after the game against Finland. “We allowed way too many chances around our net, and both goalies rescued us. We need to work on improving our game on defense.”

The coach’s verdict

As usual, Znarok was unwilling to offer up many clues about the party he will be naming on December 25. While he professed himself happy with the results, he also spoke of a tournament that raised as many questions as it supplied answers.

“I can’t say that everything worked out, once again we couldn’t score on the power play,” he said in his post-game press conference. “Our PK was good, and the goalie did well.

“To be honest, I wasn’t completely happy with any of our games. There are many outstanding questions, and many things didn’t quite work out for us.”

What’s next?

On December 25, Znarok is due to announce the 25-strong party to go to Korea. According to the head coach, at least three players who were involved with Russia’s B team at the weekend are still in the frame, with SKA goalie Igor Shestyorkin likely to be one of those. Once the KHL season goes into its pre-Olympic pause in late January, the Russian team will play three warm-up games prior to the start of the Olympic tournament. Before travelling to Korea, there are games against Spartak Moscow and the Belarus national team; on arrival in the Olympic venue, Russia will play an exhibition game against the host nation.

In reserve

Russia’s B Team, known as the ‘Olympic’ team, played in Norway last week and picked up three wins from three games under the guidance of head coach Ilya Vorobyov. There were overtime successes against Norway and Slovakia, followed by a 3-1 victory over France to wrap up a successful week.

Andy Potts,
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