Plyuschev Brings Change and Success for the Russian National Team

By Eugene Belashchenko

New Page 1

Plyuschev Brings Change and Success
for the Russian National Team


The Russian
National Team has had quite a run during the 01-02 season.  The Russian U20
squad fought hard for the gold at the U20 World Junior Championships, beating
Canada in an overtime thriller. The Russian U18 squad also did not disappoint,
winning the silver medal with a lineup that was expected to finish out of medal
contention.  Finally, the completely unexpected, the Russians earn the silver
medal at the 2002 World Championships.  The achievements of the Russian junior
teams are not huge surprises, since the Russian junior program has been
finishing in the top of the rankings at almost every U18 and U20 tournament. 
Russia’s silver finish in Germany, however, took many by surprise for several
reasons. First, the Russian National team performed quite poorly during the
EuroTour competition and did not appear to have the drive and talent needed to
build a competitive squad.  The main reasons they found success at the World
Championships were the amazing goaltending from Maxim Sokolov, solid offensive
from youthful Ivan Tkachenko and a completely and utterly defensive minded game
that tired out and suffocated their opponents, and put the fans to sleep.  While
Mikhailov brought home the silver medal and did his country proud, he did it in
a very North American fashion, using defensive minded hockey with strong
physical pressure to neutralize the opponent. 


After coming home
to a hero’s welcome, Boris Mikhailov was deemed the savior of Russian hockey and
it appeared that the mediocre performance of the Russian squad for the previous
two years at the EuroTour and at the 2001 World Championships was all but
forgotten.   Mikhailov was at the top and the helm of the Russian National Team,
which he had little chance of retaining before the WC, was now his for the
taking.  After more then a month of deliberation, Boris Mikhailov stepped down
as Russia’s head coach. The official version is that the Russian Hockey
Federation and Boris Mikhailov could not come to terms on a financial deal and
Boris Mikhailov walked away from the negotiations.  The unofficial story, well,
we will never know the unofficial story of why Boris Mikhailov no longer steered
Team Russia, but there are numerous possibilities.  What ever the reason may
have been, Ak Bars and U20 Team Russia coach Vladimir Plyuschev was named the
next man to helm the Russian squad.  

Granted, Vladimir Plyuschev was coming in to take over for a coach that just
brought the Russia the first medal of any kind at the senior level of
competition in over eights years.  However, while Boris Mikhailov had a
checkered record with Russia’s senior squad, Vladimir Plyuschev consistently
guided his 82-83 Russian squad to success. In 2001 he won the gold medal at the
U18 World Junior Championships and once again brought Russia the gold at the
2002 U20 World Junior Championships, something many said the Russian squad had
the talent, but not the will or discipline to achieve. 


first act as Russia’s head coach came in late August when he announced the
training camp invitees for the squad that would represent Russia at Czech Ceska
Poistovna Tournament, the first leg of the EuroTour.  The list made it very
clear that Plyuschev intended to clean house and tap younger, more talented, but
less established players who were still on the rise in their careers, full of
the drive and spark that the Russian team has been missing for the previous
couple of seasons.  Excluding the goalies, most of the members of the National
Team were under 25 years of age and were newcomers to the National Team. 
Vladimir Plyuschev, however, was very familiar with the quality of the five
youngest members, as he had coached them for the previous three years on the
Russian 82-83 National Team.   Some questioned the competence of Plyuschev’s
selections especially of younger and fairly unproven Grebeshkov and Perezhogin. 
The rumbles became louder when he cut several older, proven veterans at training
camp.  It appeared that the Russian National Team was once again primed for the
same mediocrity that has haunted it for the previous few seasons, only this time
due to lack of experience instead of lack of talent. 


Many questions
regarding the team were answered during the friendly game the Russian National
Team played against the Czech Republic a couple of days prior to the
tournament.  Vladimir Plyuschev continued to break down the Russian National
team of old and start from scratch not only in the lineup but also in the team’s
style of play.  Gone were the suffocating defensive neutral zone trap and the
defense first attack later team attitude.  The team now displayed great
offensive prowess and overwhelmed the opposing team with shots on net.  The
Russian squad won the preseason game 5:2, but, though a welcome sight, the
overwhelming victory was after all, only a friendly exhibition contest. 


The real test
came three days later when the two squads met again, this time in the opening
match of the tournament.   Plyuschev showed confidence in his squad, keeping the
lines exactly the same as they were in the preseason game.  This contest proved
a difficult one for the Russian team.  However, the Russian team stuck to it’s
strategy and suffocated the more experienced Czech team with constant offensive
threats.  The puck stayed in the Czech zone for most of the game and Russian
goalie Maxim Sokolov saw the first shot only during the 11th minute
of the game.  After that, however, the Czechs appeared to come alive, but
Plyuschev’s faith in Sokolov proved correct, as the goalie saved the Russian
squad on quite a few occasions in every contest of the tournament.  In the
second period and the Russian team found itself down a goal, but continuted to
fight hard and won the contest 3:1 with two of the three goals being scored by
the team’s young stars Grigorenko and Alexander Suglobov.  


In the second
contest of the tournament against the Swedes, the Russian team faced a team with
a doctrine differing significantly from the Czech’s open ice offensively minded
strategy.  The Swedes countered Russia’s full speed game with a physical play
all over the ice.  The Swedes came hard and their strategy worked, as the
Russian squad started to take unnecessary penalties.  However as the contest
continued, Plyuschev choice in goalies for the tournament proved a factor once
again as Tsarev was unbeatable after giving up an early goal in the second
minute of the contest.   Russia’s speed lines, especially the youth line
consisting of Perezhogin, Nepriayev and Suglobov, played very well. After almost
two and a half periods and several thwarted scoring chances, Alexander
Perezhogin put Russia on the board with a pretty game tying goal that started
with Alexander Suglobov winning a face off, making a quick, in motion, pass to
Perezhogin, who then skated through the Swedish defense, shot the puck, got his
own rebound and put in the net.  Grigorenko scored Russia’s winning penalty shot
and once again the youth lead the Russian squad to victory.    


squad wasn’t fortunate enough to win all three games of the tournament, losing
the last contest to the Finns 0:1.   The Russian team continued to play open ice
offensive style of hockey but failed to find a breach in Finnish goalie
Norrenna’s armor.  As in the first game Maxim Sokolov’s excellent goaltending
kept the team afloat and the Finns’ lead to just a goal.   Even with the loss
the Russian team still finished atop the Tournament’s standings and was
recognized by many to be the biggest surprise of the tournament.


Plyuschev’s game strategy and lineup choices appear to provide the spark that
the Russian National Team has been in a dire need of for several years.  Just as
importantly, Plyuschev’s changes also offered the Russian fans entertaining
hockey worth watching and filled up the local bars in Russian hockey cities like
Yaroslavl.  Plyuschev’s success should not be short lived, as he has placed a
large part of the team’s success in the hands of Russian’s talented youth, who
are not accustomed to failure, have dominated international hockey for many
years and have the talent and desire to win.  

Eugene Belashchenko
is the Editor-In-Chief of
and Russia Correspondent for Hockey’s Future