Russia’s juniors are through to the semi-final of the World Championship in Edmonton, where they will face host nation Canada for a place in the gold-medal game. The teams met in a warm-up game before the tournament, with the Canadians edging a 1-0 verdict. Since then, Russia’s form has been mixed: highlights include an impressive win over USA and an overtime victory over Sweden that represented the Tre Kronor’s first group phase loss in 54 games. However, a 0-2 defeat to a modest Czech team and an anxious 2-1 semi-final success against the outsider from Germany showed some of the weaknesses in the team.
Head coach Igor Larionov admitted that his team struggled against Germany’s defense, but added that he was pleased with the character his players showed to get the win. Team captain Vasily Podkolzin is also looking for improvements. “The positive thing is that we won, but it’s a shame we played like this. We have to improve. You have to be a lot better in knock-out games. We must produce our best performance in the next game.” Russia takes on Canada tonight, with the puck dropping at midnight CET (2 am Moscow time).
The stats show that much of Russia’s success in the World Juniors comes from its KHL contingent. Salavat Yulaev’s Rodion Amirov leads the team in scoring with 6 (2+4) points in five games, while there have been clutch scores from SKA’s Marat Khusnutdinov and Ufa’s Danil Bashkirov to see off Sweden and Germany respectively. On defense, Avangard’s Semyon Chistyakov has been a reliable performer, with a +4 coefficient for the alternate captain so far. And SKA’s Yaroslav Askarov has produced a solid tournament, giving Russia a platform from which to shoot for hardware in the next couple of days.
Ilya Kovalchuk returned to the KHL in term for last game of 2020 and wasted little time in reminding everybody what he’s got. The 37-year-old, now playing for Avangard, potted a goal on his debut for the Hawks to tie the game against Kunlun Red Star. However, it wasn’t enough to make a winning start: the Dragons hit back to win it in overtime.
As the year came to an end, KHL.ru’s number crunchers got busy to calculate the most productive performers of 2020. Dynamo Moscow’s Vadim Shipachyov was the leading scorer of the calendar year, collecting 73 (24+49) points from 63 games. Among D-men, Jokerit’s Mikko Lehtonen was the stand-out, with 41 (15+26) in 43 games. That put him well clear of the chasing pack despite playing fewer games than his rivals. Jakub Kovar was the shut-out king, blanking the oppo seven times in 50 games for Avtomobilist, although Ilya Sorokin’s six shut-outs in 17 games for CSKA before his trans-Atlantic trade is also worthy of note. Meanwhile, Dmitry Kvartalnov was the league’s winningest coach despite none of the above players featuring for his Ak Bars team. He won 48 of the 64 games he directed, two more than CSKA’s Igor Nikitin.
New Year isn’t just a time for looking back. KHL.ru also took the opportunity to poll selected commentators and reporters about their predictions for the end of this season. The most popular pick was Yegor Chinakhov to be named rookie of the year, with 10 votes out of 11 cast. The Avangard forward has been a star for his club this season and could play a key role for his country if he shakes off a minor injury in time to play in the decisive games of the World Juniors. But who will win the Gagarin Cup? According to the panel, CSKA is the favorite (six votes) ahead of Ak Bars or SKA (two apiece) and Avangard (one). And it could well be Konstantin Okulov who propels the Army Men to a second title — he was the most popular choice for MVP, just ahead of team-mate Anton Slepyshev.