Friday, April 15, 2011

Pre-Game Thoughts

This particular tournament was constructed from the ruble that was the collapse of the Russian hockey powerhouse as witnessed at the 2010 Winter Olympics. With the country hosting the next Winter Olympics, the entire hockey program was dismantled and is well on its way to being resurrected with the focus on youth and junior players. The Russian Select team is the equivalent of an All Star Team with players identified by the Russian Hockey Federation as being the future of hockey in the country.

The Russian Select team playing under the moniker of the MHL Red Stars boasts players with some serious International experience. Nikita Pivtsakin may be the most recognized name in the group having recently won gold at the 2011 IIHF World U20 Championships in Buffalo, New York. Georgy Berdyukov also won gold with Pivtsakin this past January and was in Trail for the 2007 World Junior A Challenge along with Dmitry Kostromitin. Nikita Ivanov has played in the 2007 U-18 World Championship and back to back World Juniors in 2008 and 2009 for Kazakhstan.

These Russian players are very aware that they have played in some prestigious tournaments while their Canadian counterparts are experiencing International play for the first time. In the Russian to English translation some of the quotes come out leaving the Canadian pride a little bruised. Evgeny Mons mockingly wanted to score a penalty shot with one hand was one description of a play late in the exhibition game played earlier in the week.

"I'm not even sweating," said Roman Smiryagin, the Red Stars goaltender after the exhibition game. "I was rarely bothered."

"I've never heard of such a league - BCHL," said defenseman Nikita Pivtsakin. "But Canadians are Canadians."

And Team Canada did play their brand of hockey as noted in one newspaper article following the exhibition game. From the first minutes of the game the Canadians made it clear that they had come to Moscow not only walk around the Kremlin, but to play and win. The article continues on to describe a Russian player being taken off the ice after a crushing hit.

"Do not even understand how it happened," said an utterly frustrated (injured player) Artem Maslov after the game.

In a pregame interview goaltender Roman Smiryagin informed the media that he would be the back up to Kristers Gudlevskis and that his team mate might be in for a tougher test than was the case in the exhibition game.

"The second match in a paired series of games is always harder than the first," said Smiryagin. "The teams have quite a different mood, rivals of each other have better knowledge, may choose different tactics for the match. So Kristersu today obviously will not be easy."

"Canadians have always played a classic exciting and aggressive game, they fight to the last," continued Smiryagin. "I don't think you should expect them to be something supernatural or fundamentally new - will be the same as the last match. But there will be a difference. A little more responsibility than in a friendly match. This is the tournament, we need to play more carefully and responsibly and win every match of the tournament (smiles)."

Prior to Friday's opening game I was also able to catch up with RJay Berra and get some of his thoughts.

"The Russians are good," Berra said via a text message. "We played their under 22 team with a few KHL guys and a guy that has played exhibition games in the show. It was a tough one for our first game."

"We open against the same team," continued Berra. "I think we will play better though after a few good practices and team outings around Moscow."

"It's fast," was the initial response I received after asking about the style of game being played by the Russian team. "Really skilled and lots of quick stick checks. They find lots of ways to strip you from the puck without using the body. The large ice is definitely their game and if they can make a fancy play they make it."

"Neutral zone containment, not giving them easy outs and containing their quick attack," was Berra's response to what adjustments Team Canada would have to make. "Little bit more power play and penalty kill work and just continuing to build team chemistry."

With that came the opening puck drop in the inaugural game of the "Cup of the Region Centre" International Tournament. Team Canada was able to keep the score close deep into the second period but came away with a 6-2 loss against the MHL Red Stars. CLICK HERE for a game summary from Eddie Gregory, media relations for the BCHL Team Canada, and the BCHL in Russia blog.

Team Canada will play next on Saturday April 16th at 6:30pm (7:30am Pacific Time) against the Russian National team. I am still working on finding the roster for this team as it has yet to appear on the tournament website. CLICK HERE for available rosters in the Tournament Rosters posting. Team Canada will wrap up their portion of round-robin play on Sunday afternoon against the Slovakia team at 1:00pm (2:00am PDT).

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