OHL tops Russia in tight affair

By Ken McKenna

Given the lopsided series advantage for Canada over the four years of the Canada-Russia Challenge, the 4-3 outcome of Monday night’s tilt in Oshawa was not at all surprising.

Forgetting the CHL’s dominant run through the 22 games played so far in the four years, the game at the newly minted General Motors Centre between the OHL All-Stars and the Russian Selects was a truly entertaining and intense affair. This contest offered a little bit of everything, including skilled playmaking, thundering hits and solid goaltending.

But what turned into an intense battle didn’t look so special through the first period and the early portion of the second as the OHL built a 3-1 lead off goals by center Ryan O’Marra (New York Islanders, 1st round – 2005), defenseman Patrick McNeill (Washington Capitals, 4th round – 2005) and right wing Steve Downie (Philadelphia Flyers, 1st round – 2005). Were it not for some great goaltending by Russian goaltender Ilia Proskuryakov, a rout surely would have ensued given the OHL’s ability to create several outstanding scoring chances at the expense of the overwhelmed Russian forwards and defense. Indeed, with the shot clock showing the OHL with a 22-9 advantage at the 13.50 mark of the second period, it seemed that a blowout was inevitable.

But the Russian squad found their legs at this point in the game while the OHL players seemed to lose their edge. The Russian forwards, who were smothered through the first half of the game by the bigger and talented OHL defensive corps, finally were able to create some room for themselves in the offensive zone. With the Russian forwards now able to force their way to the net, they were able to knot the game at three before the end of the second stanza. Scoring for Russia were center Dmitry Zyuzin, and left wingers Denis Kazionov (Tampa Bay Lightning, 7th round – 2006) and Andrey Kiryukhin.

The Russian comeback set the stage for an intense third period. The two teams exchanged scoring chances and big hits, but the game remained tied due to the solid work of Proskuryakov and OHL goaltender Steve Mason (Columbus Blue Jackets, 3rd round – 2006).

The OHL took the lead for good at 6:42 of the third when center Bryan Little (Atlanta Thrashers – 1st round – 2006) converted a perfect feed from O’Marra to make the score 4-3. The Russians had a couple of glorious chances to tie the game, with Zyuzin missing the net on a point blank opportunity and Mason making a game-saving pad save on Kiryukhin after a nice give-and-go with defenseman Stanislav Romanov. This save marked the last good chance the Russians had to tie the game.

The player of the game for the OHL was O’Marra, who finished with a goal and an assist. Egor Milovzorov was named Russia’s best player on the strength of his two-assist performance.

Of course, a game that features as much talent as was assembled in Oshawa featured more than just two top performers. For the OHL squad, the line combination of Sam Gagner (2007 eligible) centering Downie and left wing James Neal (Dallas Stars, 2nd round – 2005) seemed to cause the most problems for the Russian defenseman. This line featured a nice mix of size, skill and grit, with the nifty Gagner setting up his linemates for several scoring opportunities. In fact, despite his one-assist performance, it could be said that Gagner was the most impressive player on either squad. The feisty Downie was a thorn in the side of the Russian players the entire game, with his goal coming off of a scramble around the Russian net. Neal assisted on Downie’s goal and dealt some punishing checks over the course of the game.

Other OHL forwards that stood out were Bryan Little, who scored the game winner and in general was effective in the offensive zone. Forward John Tavares (2009 eligible) had a strong first period, but seemd to fade as the game wore on. And, even though he didn’t figure in the scoring, right wing Dan Ryder (Calgary Flames, 3rd round – 2005) played an effective game both at even strength and killing penalties.

Of course, O’Marra was a presence the entire evening, both offensively and physically. His goal was a one-timer off of a perfect pass from Logan Couture (2007 eligible), while his assist on Little’s goal showed a nice passing touch. O’Marra delivered one of the best hits of the game, catching Russian defenseman Romanov with a thundering hit in the offensive zone. Romanov later returned the favor, breaking a pane of glass in the process.

The OHL defensive unit as a whole played another strong game. Big defenseman John de Gray (Anaheim Ducks, 3rd round – 2006) played smartly while making himself an impediment to Russian players wanting to drive to the net. Marc Staal (New York Rangers, 1st round – 2005) and Drew Doughty (2007 eligible) worked the point on the power play very effectively, with both players picking up assists on OHL goals.

For Russia, their top line was their first unit of Zyuzin centering Kiryukhin and right wing Alexander Kalyanin. This line generated two of Russia’s three goals, with Kiryukhin truly being Russia’s best forward over the course of the game. Had the skilled winger been able to bury a breakaway chance in the second period in which he had Mason beaten, the outcome of the game may have been different. But that failed opportunity pointed out the fact that this Russian squad does not have any finishers, skilled though they are.

After a shaky first period, the somewhat undersized Russian defense managed to hold their own against the bigger OHL forwards. Both Romanov and Andrey Zubarev (Atlanta Thrashers, 6th round – 2005) were particularly physical with OHL forwards that ventured near the Russian goal. Both players earned the enmity of OHL players, with Zubarev being on the receiving end of an ugly incident towards the end of the game. Alexey Shvalev was effective as a point man on the Russian power play, as he picked up the primary assist on his club’s first goal.

Had the outcome of the game been different, the Russian goaltender Proskuryakov almost certainly would have been his team’s player of the game. While the diminutive Proskuryakov was guilty of leaving some fat rebounds for OHL forwards, he also contributed some stellar saves that kept his club in the game. His quick feet led to some great pad saves in close.

What this series is truly all about is preparation for the upcoming World Junior Championships. The CHL players taking part in this series are trying to make a final statement before the camp roster is announced in early December. For the Russians, these games amount to a tune-up for a portion of the roster they’ll take to the WJC. If the series so far is any indication, Hockey Canada will have some difficult choices to make at all positions, while the Russians will be looking to add offense and perhaps a bit of grit to their current mix of players.