One of the best rivalries in all of hockey succeeds because the two nations are talented and competitive. But a dose of mystery helps and Russia still has that as the team charges into the gold medal game.
Russia will play for gold at the World Junior Championship thanks to a sturdy 4-1 win over Sweden, setting up a classic showdown with Canada on Toronto ice.
Part of the reason the Cold War has never ended in arenas is that there is a certain mystery and awe surrounding the Russians over here. Most of the world junior team still plays on the other side of the world and the KHL’s existence means that some of the better players in Russia never have to come over here.
Because rivalries are fun (and because I can’t write in Cyrillic), here are the five Russians that Canadians will love to hate – and learn to fear – in the gold medal game. To up the rivalry factor, none are plying their trade in North America right now.
Vyacheslav Leshenko – The winger on Russia’s top line has great speed and a nice arsenal of offensive weapons. But he’s also a real shift disturber. Leshenko is adept at drawing penalties, has been busted for diving already in the tournament and plays with a nice edge. Canadians would love him on their team, but they will loathe him on the other side.
“He has a lot of energy before games, always yelling,” said linemate Ivan Barbashev. “He really helps our team.”
Nikita Cherepanov – A nasty stay-at-home defenseman, Cherepanov takes no guff in front of his own net. Team Canada likes to go to the net, so there may be some disagreements on the matter.
Ivan Fishenko – Bit of a yapper and like Leshenko, plays a chippy game. Canadians will no doubt latch on to the fact he has the word “fish” in his name as a point of derision.
Valeri Bragin – The Russian coach is a classic villain if you’re from North America. He can be old-school gruff, suffers no fools and shows up the refs when he’s unhappy. He’s also very successful and gets the best out of his troops (eventually).
Igor Shesterkin – I tried to stay away from drafted players here, but Russia’s starting goalie is New York Rangers property. He’s also scary good thanks to his wicked athleticism and composure in the crease, so it was impossible to keep him off the list since he could steal gold for the Russians if need be.