• Will they or won't they?

    From IIHF News@1:266/404 to All on Thu May 10 16:54:09 2018
    The Swedes made history when they won Olympic gold and IIHF World Championship gold in the same year (2006). Could the Russians replicate that feat this year?

    Of course, there are certain distinctions to be made. Coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson's ‘06 team captured "double gold" with NHL players participating in Turin, whereas the world's top hockey league elected to skip February's Winter Games. Also, the Swedes accomplished their feat under their own blue-and-yelow flag, whereas the Russians won Olympic gold under a neutral flag
    and were officially known as the "Olympic Athletes from Russia" after the Russian Olympic Committee, due to allegations of doping violations, was suspended for PyeongChang.

    Yet regardless, it's well worth considering whether the Russian team in Denmark
    under new head coach Ilya Vorobyov can give their hockey-loving compatriots a reason to celebrate twice in one year. The picture looks quite promising right now, as the Russians have three straight Group A wins and a 20-0 goal difference heading into Thursday's meeting with the Czech Republic.

    Our two Copenhagen-based experts sat down to hash out the likelihood of Russian
    "double gold." Lucas Aykroyd has covered every IIHF World Championship and Olympic men's hockey tournament in the 21st century. Andy Potts is a regular contributor to the KHL web site.

    Is this Russia's year?

    Potts: Potentially, yes. It's hard to draw big conclusions after games against relatively weak opposition, but what we've seen so far in Copenhagen suggests a
    team that is performing rather more strongly than many anticipated. The confidence and composure with which the Russians swept aside the minnows in Group A was exactly what the team needed to play itself back into form after some patchy performances in last month's Euro Tour games.

    Aykroyd: I'm not completely convinced. Yes, the Russians have delivered the goods against lower-caliber opposition. But realistically, their roster here is
    not quite on par with the OAR squad in PyeongChang, given the absence of key players like Olympic MVP Ilya Kovalchuk, six-time KHL points champ Sergei Mozyakin, and all-star defenceman Vyacheslav Voynov, among others. With the Washington Capitals ousting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs, we can now also eliminate Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeni Kuznetsov, and the injured Yevgeni Malkin from coach Ilya Vorobyov's options.

    The other big nations, meanwhile, have loaded up on NHLers. The Swedes, Canadians, and Americans are definitely in the gold-medal conversation, and Finland's unexpected 3-2 loss to host Denmark will likely serve as the wake-up call coach Lauri Marjamaki's team needs. The odds are against a Russian "double

    Do you see parallels between the 2006 Swedish teams and the 2018 Russian teams?

    Potts: Fewer than expected, to be honest. In particular, the way Russia has retained the nucleus of its Olympic roster is very different from 2006. Back then, Sweden shuffled its pack extensively between tournaments and barely a handful of players featured in both; here, Russia might plausibly call on 14 of
    its Olympic gold medallists by the end of the competition.

    Looking specifically at the roster in Denmark, would it be fanciful to suggest that young Kirill Kaprizov, sharing a line with Pavel Datsyuk, might be an equivalent to Niklas Backstrom's Swedish debut alongside Henrik Zetterberg at the Worlds in Riga back in the day?

    Aykroyd: There aren't many parallels in terms of the Olympics. Turin was the third "NHL Olympics," and the Swedes had their golden generation of Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, and Daniel Alfredsson. PyeongChang was a true KHL-fest for this year's Russians.

    In Riga, the Swedes got a career-defining performance out of veteran journeyman
    goalie Johan Holmqvist. The Russians are trying to follow a similar pattern with Vasili Koshechkin. Don't forget: even though Oleg Znarok rode Koshechkin to the gold medal in PyeongChang, the towering 35-year-old had only played a total of seven World Championship games, dating back to 2007, prior to Copenhagen. He's excelled on the KHL stage, but has never had a sniff in the NHL. And Koshechkin wouldn't be the go-to goalie if Sergei Bobrovsky or Andrei Vasilevski was on the roster, much as the Swedes presumably would have opted for Henrik Lundqvist over Holmqvist in 2006 if that option had been there.

    What are Russia's greatest strengths and weaknesses?

    Potts: No surprises here. The offence is the greatest strength and the defence is the greatest weakness. We might not be seeing the kind of stellar forward lines Russia has assembled in the past, but there are plenty of good, solid contributors. Mikhail Grigorenko is in form, Kirill Kaprizov has shrugged off a
    disappointing KHL play-off campaign and then there's Pavel Datsyuk, still capable of conjuring up something breathtaking when the opportunity presents itself. SKA St. Petersburg hot-shot Nikita Gusev, one of the players who cemented his reputation in PyeongChang, who has been recovering from an injury,
    has just been added to the roster.

    Defence is a different story. Russia lacks truly top-class blue liners, and as you noted, the absence of Voynov is a real blow. Nikita Zaitsev is a good replacement, but there's a lack of high-quality options out there - stronger opposition might take advantage of that.

    Aykroyd: We're on the same page overall here. I'll add coaching to the strengths. Clearly, it took many people by surprise when Oleg Znarok was replaced less than two months after winning Olympic gold. But if you go by what
    veteran Canadian coach Dave King told me in an interview last year, the appointment of Ilya Vorobyov, who served as an assistant coach under Znarok, didn't come completely out of the blue.

    King said: "When Ilya played the game, you could tell he understood the game. He's got it in his genes. His father Pyotr Vorobyov is a very famous Russian coach. He's coached the national team a bit, national B teams, and he's a really good hockey coach. I actually took over from him with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl a few years ago. So Ilya comes by this very naturally because his dad
    was a great coach. And Ilya is a bright guy. He speaks three or four languages."

    In terms of weaknesses, Vorobyov must caution his players against the bad habits, cheating and excessive fanciness that you sometimes see Russian teams adopt when they're running up the score on weaker opponents. Just cranking it up and "playing the right way" in the big games sometimes works for Russia - other times, it backfires spectacularly.

    Who will make or break Russia's chances?

    Potts: Assuming the offence keeps on firing, it really will hang on how the defence can cope with more dangerous opponents. So the likes of Zaitsev, CSKA's
    Bogdan Kiselevich and Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg's Nikita Tryamkin will need to
    step up for the games that matter. At some stage, inevitably, Koshechkin will be called upon for a big goaltending display as well.

    Aykroyd: As you mentioned, the Russians already have some capable scorers, but the injection of Gusev could be crucial. He's not just a flashy scorer, but also a "man of moments," as he showed with his two goals and two assists in the
    4-3 OAR gold medal victory over Germany. The blue line is a likely Achilles heel, and not just defensively. Over the full tournament, Sweden will likely get more offensive mileage out of John Klingberg and Oliver Ekman-Larsson than Russia will out of its defencemen. Ditto for Canada with Aaron Ekblad and Colton Parayko. These are teams that Russia will have to go through en route to

    What does it mean for a country to win Olympic and World Championship gold in the same year?

    Aykroyd: It's an incredible achievement. It's only happened once, and it's crazy to think that the great Soviet teams of the 1970's, for instance, were unable to do it in an era when Canada had withdrawn from IIHF competition (1970-76). Certainly, it's a testament to the depth of the victorious country's
    hockey program: after all, only eight Swedish Olympians from Turin made the trip to the World Championship, meaning coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson was shuffling a very different deck of cards in Riga.

    In a perfect world, the opportunity should provide motivation to ice your best available roster at the Worlds. That's an opportunity Canada failed to grasp in
    2002, 2010, and 2014, crashing out in the quarter-finals each time with rosters
    that looked nothing like Salt Lake, Vancouver, or Sochi.

    Potts: This year is odd. In the recent best-on-best Olympics it's always been clear that the Games are the biggest prize. The standard has been higher, the rewards greater. That's why we've often seen teams send very experimental rosters to the Worlds in Olympic years. Without the NHL in PyeongChang, though,
    there are some questions about the extent to which Russia can claim to be unequivocally the world's best. Following that up with a World Championship win, against rosters boosted by NHL talent, would remove that asterisk next to the triumph in PyeongChang.

    It might also go some way to reminding Russian hockey how much strength it holds in reserve. There was criticism of the roster that came to Denmark, and concern that without the likes of Alexander Radulov, Artemi Panarin or Sergei Bobrovsky, Russia would struggle to get among the medals. After a season in which many complained that the concentration of national team players at two KHL clubs was damaging Russian hockey, a golden run in Denmark might be a strong endorsement of Russia's domestic championship as well as its national team.

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