Team OHL strikes back

By Glen Jackson

From the moment the Russian Selects stepped on the ice for the pre-game warm up on Thursday night in Barrie, Ontario, they looked like they might be too much for Team OHL to handle. They’d beaten Team QMJHL in both their matches earlier in the week, both in shootout, effectively distancing themselves from the memory of last year’s Russian Selects team that won only one of six games against the three CHL squads, getting blown out several times along the way.

“They’re a lot better team than they sent over last year,” Team OHL coach Peter DeBoer said of the Russian squad after the game.

A clearly confident bunch, some felt the Russian players used excessive celebrations and unnecessary taunting of the Q players and fans in those first two matches.

While Team OHL’s players appeared on Thursday for warm up wearing their individual home club’s jerseys and utilizing the standard shooting drills to ready the goaltenders, the Russian Selects, all in matching red, moved through their own drills in disciplined unison with more of an emphasis on passing. The arena was abuzz with most fans already in their seats during the warm up, perhaps hoping that even a little of the classic Russia-Canada rivalry would surface on this night.

Unfortunately for the Russian team, they came into the third leg of the six-game CHL tour missing two of their better players: Alexander Radulov (NAS), who returned to the Quebec Remparts, and goaltender Anton Khudobin (MIN) who was unexpectedly called back to Russia on a promotion to play for Metallurg Magnitodorsk of the Superleague. And without one third of their effective first line, nor Khudobin, who’d played extremely well and had been perfect against the shootout in both wins, they could not quite come together once the warm ups were complete and fell 3-1 to Team OHL in front of a nearly full house at the Barrie Molson Centre.

Team OHL opened the scoring only one minute and forty-nine seconds into the game when Dylan Hunter’s (BUF) tenacious forechecking popped the puck lose to Team OHL captain Michael Richards (PHI) in the right face off circle. Richards then turned and feathered a soft ten foot pass into David Bolland’s (CHI) wheelhouse, and Russian goaltender Andrei Kuznetsov was beaten by Bolland’s blast over his left shoulder.

“It was a strong first shift of the game for us,” said Richards after the game. “We had a couple of lucky bounces and Bolland put it in the net. We kind of set the tempo for the game with that.” When Richards, who plays for the Kitchener Rangers, was asked how he felt about setting up his OHL division rival from the London Knights for the goal he laughed. “Next time we play him I’ll have to remember we’re not on the same team.”

Kuznetsov, who appeared in last year’s Remax CHL-Russia Challenge along with Khudobin, was unaffected by Bolland’s goal and made a good save against Wojtek Wolski (COL) soon after when Wolski one-timed a pass from the edge of the crease that had originated from behind the net. In fact Kuznetsov held his team in the game as only halfway through the first period the Russian Selects had been out shot 14 to 1. Team OHL finished the period with 18 shots to Russia’s 5. “They hung around. Their goalie kept them in the game and gave them a chance,” said DeBoer.

The second period began for Kuznetsov as it had left off in the first and his confidence manifested itself in sometimes aggressive and unorthodox methods in the Russian net. On one play in particular, Jeff Carter (PHI) approached from the right of Kuznetsov along the end line and when he was about fifteen feet from the near post the Russian goalie charged and dove at Carter, poking the puck behind the net as he slid towards him with a aggressive and risky style reminiscent of former Boston Bruins/Buffalo Sabres goaltender John Blue. For his part, Carter did not dominate on this night as he did in the 2004 World Junior Championships in Finland. The big Russian blueliners were able to contain him physically, and when he did have room he didn’t always capitalize and make the necessary play.

The rest of the Russian Selects turned up the intensity in the second to match their goaltender’s level and their strong and physical play resulted in a goal just over five minutes in when Sergei Kochetkov scored off a nice flip pass from Alexander Plyuschev on a two on one. The odd-man rush began when defenseman Nathan McIver (VAN) chose to go for a big hit at the Russian blueline, leaving the loose puck available for Kochetkov and Plyuschev to create their scoring opportunity. OHL goaltender Ryan Munce (LA) dove across the net following the pass across the front of the crease, but a few feet remained unprotected and Kochetkov placed an accurate shot just inside the near post.

It was the only goal that would get behind Munce, who faced a total of 26 shots on the night. “He played well,” Richards said of Munce. “He didn’t have a lot of shots but when we needed him he really stepped up.”

Team OHL was in danger of falling behind a goal on a few occasions over the next five minutes of play but Munce was able to weather the storm and 11:34 into the second an innocent looking point shot from Ryan Parent beat Kuznetsov while the teams were skating four aside. The shot was essentially a floater and should have been an easy grab for any goalie at this level, but Kuznetsov misjudged it and the puck tipped off his glove and into the net.

Following the goal it was clear that Kuznetsov was still thinking that goal over and while he tried to regain his composure he looked down at the blue ice of the crease just as a Team OHL player flipped a bouncing shot in on him from center ice. It hadn’t been much more than thirty seconds since he had allowed the questionable goal and with a slightly delayed reaction Kuznetsov again tried to glove a slow shot and again missed it, however this time he was able to direct it away from the net. The puck didn’t leave the Russian zone again until the officials had retrieved it from the net at 12:41 after Team OHL poured on the pressure and ripped one shot after another at Kuznetsov, who at this point was lacking confidence and had positioned himself almost directly over the goal line before Brad Richardson (COL) finally slid the puck under his pads from the right circle. After that third goal the Selects picked up their game and removed the pressure from Kuznetsov long enough for him to rebound.

Although the second half of the game produced no goals for either team the hometown fans were electrified by the play of the Barrie Colt’s Bryan Little. “He was fantastic,” said DeBoer, who coaches the Kitchener Rangers, on Little’s performance. The 17-year-old Little showed definite offensive skill in all ways, especially his puck control. Three times he was able to somehow maneuver all the way around a well-positioned Kuznetsov but ran out of ice, almost scoring each time. On one of those plays he had to sift through no fewer than three Russian skaters on his way to the net but just missed finishing what would have been a sure highlight reel goal. Late in the third Little also quarterbacked a two on one rush but elected to shoot, just catching Kuznetsov’s shoulder with a laser snapshot. “He’s a really impressive young player and a guy you appreciate more when you’re behind the bench coaching him,” said DeBoer.

For Russian coach Sergei Gersonsky, his team that looked so impressive in its first two wins suddenly seems to lack the edge in scoring and goaltending needed to win against the CHL’s best.

Alexei Koptyaev filled in for Radulov on the first line with Roman Voloshenko (MIN) and Mikael Yunkov, a line which had accounted for virtually every Russian goal in the first two outings of the series. But the new trio was almost completely ineffectual on Thursday with Koptyaev inserted. On one play in particular Voloshenko weaved imposingly close to the OHL net before shifting backwards and finding an open Koptaev in the opposite face off circle. Voloshenko made a nifty pass across but Koptyaev’s shot lacked zip and Munce came across and made the easy save. When coach Gersonsky was asked if he would try someone else in Koptyaev’s spot next game to try to recapture the first line scoring his team desperately needs he smiled coyly and said through a translator, “That’s my secret. I am the coach, and I make the decisions. I’ll make that decision before every game.”

When asked to compare the QMJHL and OHL teams they had faced this year he said, “There wasn’t a lot of difference between the teams. This team (OHL) seems to be a little more technical, a little bit more talented with the puck. But it’s tough to tell. We’ve played only two games there and one game here, but there’s not a huge difference.”

Gersonsky made a blunt assessment of his own squad. “The team didn’t play very well,” he said. “They looked a little tired both physically and mentally.” He didn’t blame Kuznetsov for the loss in any way. “Everybody gets a chance to play. We had to test this goalie out. It’s a testing ground for the World Junior Championships.”

The ADT CHL-Russia challenge affords Gersonsky, who also coaches the Russian World Junior team, a final look at players he will select for Russia’s WJC squad in. “This is the third in a three stage process for me to select the national team,” the Russian coach said. “This is basically the third team that I’ve looked at. These kids that are candidates for the team played in September at a tournament (Four Nations in Czech Republic), they also just came back from Sweden, and then this is the third group of the kids. Now it’s up to me and the coaching staff to decide who of the 50 or 60 kids is going to make up the national team.”

Coach Gersonsky shook his head when asked how this Russian team compares to all Russian players of this age group. “It’s really difficult to judge the levels of kids this age. The playing level of the kids varies throughout the season. If a player gets a sufficient amount of ice time at a high enough level then that player’s level changes quite drastically from season to season, even within the season. But to sum up, this would be a B team for this age group,” no doubt alluding to the significant omissions on the roster of Alexander Ovechkin (WAS) and Evgeni Malkin (PIT), who will play in the World Juniors.

For the Russians then, the CHL-Russia Challenge appears to be more of a primer for the WJC rather than something they feel they need to win to go home satisfied. But for the CHL teams playing in front of Canadian fans it’s somewhat different.

“Everybody wanted this really bad,” said Richards of the win. “How they were kind of taunting the fans over in Quebec had us fired up even more than we already were.”

DeBoer echoed those sentiments. “This team (Russia) was 2-0 going through Quebec and in order to win this series we know we’re going to have to do our part and win our games here in Ontario to allow the West a chance to win this series.”

Team OHL plays again on Monday night at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga for their final game against the Russian Selects at 7 p.m. Team WHL will face off against the Selects on December 1st and 2nd.


Miscellaneous Notes

– David Shantz (FLA) and Cody Bass did not play for Team OHL on Thursday because the IceDogs were playing in Erie, however Kyle Quincey (DET) still played and appeared on the first powerplay unit all night.

– Anthony Stewart (FLA) also missed the first game as it would have meant too many consecutive nights of play. He’s expected to be there in Mississauga on Monday.

– The London Knights were well represented on Thursday night. That could almost go without saying as the team has still not lost a single game this season. Danny Syvret, Corey Perry (ANA), Hunter and Bolland all made sizeable contributions in the game on Thursday. Undrafted Syvret’s excellent mobility on defense allowed him to catch from behind a Russian player who was on a breakaway at the end of the first. He dove and knocked the puck away, ending the threat. Throughout the game he was probably Team OHL’s steadiest defenseman. Bolland scored the opening goal and had a few other opportunities later on, hitting the post dead on in the third on a good scoring chance. Perry’s puck control was as strong as always and he generated some scoring chances, and Hunter was the team’s primary agitator. On one shift he literally hit every red shirt he saw, often times ending up on his own behind when he took on some of the bigger Russian targets.

– Russian defenders Dmitry Megalinsky and Alexander Mikhalishin (NJ) made even the biggest Team OHL forwards look small. Both played with an edge, with Megalinsky earning one trip to the box and Mikhalishin being sent off twice.

– Richards was named the player of the game for Team OHL, Voloshenko for Russia.

– Team OHL players headed off in different directions after the game as most will need to travel and play for their OHL clubs before returning to Mississauga on Monday. The Russian Selects will have three team practices and some recreational time together before the next game.

– At the halfway point of the series last year the CHL was up 2 games to 1 on the Russian Selects with a goal differential of +9. This year they are down 1 game to 2 with an equal number of goals scored.