Given the amount of homegrown talent spread throughout the KHL and the lack of NHL participation at the 2018 Olympics, Russia has long been the presumptive favorite heading into PyeongChang. And if the result of the Channel One Cup is any indication, Russia continues to be the frontrunner as the Olympics approach.
Over the past several days, Olympic hopefuls from Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and South Korea clashed at VTB Ice Palace in Moscow, and it was the Russian squad, loaded with former NHLers, that came out on top. Russia went undefeated in the round robin-style competition, which concluded Sunday, defeating the Swedes, Canadians and Finns by a combined score of 8-1 to capture the tournament title. Rounding out the podium were the Czechs and Finns, who earned second and third spot, respectively. Sweden, Canada and South Korea found themselves in the bottom half of the standings.
Surprisingly, however, it wasn’t Russia’s firepower that carried them throughout the tournament. Instead, it was the goaltending of Ilya Sorokin and Vasily Koshechkin that guided Russia to top spot. Koshechkin stopped 60 of 61 shots he faced in two games, leading the tournament with an outstanding 0.50 goals-against average and .984 save percentage, and Sorokin posted a 20-save shutout in his sole outing against Finland.
Both goaltenders were given support, though, with Russia’s eight goals counting for the second-most in the tournament, although the nation’s big names were kept far from the tournament scoring lead. For instance, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, the two most notable names from the Russian roster, failed to register a single point in the three-game tournament. But Nikita Gusev, Sergey Kalinin, Mikhail Grigorenko and defenseman Slava Voynov registered two or more points apiece across the competition to get Russia into the winner’s circle.
The surprise of the tournament, however, were the powerful Czechs. All four of the top scorers were from the Czech Republic, which led the competition with 11 goals across three games and would have won the tournament had they not needed overtime to down Finland in their first outing. The Czech quartet of Martin Erat, Vojtech Mozik, Martin Ruzicka and Michael Repik each had multiple goals and three or more points en route to finishing first to fourth in scoring, respectively. Goaltender Dominik Furch also stood tall, managing a 1.49 GAA and .932 SP in more than 120 minutes of work.
That the Russians and Czechs were so successful and that Finland and Sweden were in a near dead heat for third place undoubtedly pushes those four squads into the spotlight as the Olympics approach. While the five-day competition may not be a perfect representation of what to expect in PyeongChang, it’s likely as close as the hockey world will get until the national teams land in South Korea. And, with that in mind, the result has to be somewhat worrying for Hockey Canada.
Entering the tournament with a lineup that included expected Olympians such as Derek Roy, Linden Vey, Wojtek Wolski, Chris Lee, Maxim Noreau and goaltender Ben Scrivens, the Canadian team was barely able to keep its head above water.
In their tournament-opening game, a contest some may have expected to be a softball against the South Korean side, Canada trailed 2-1 after the first frame before scoring three goals in the final 30 minutes of the contest, including a Quinton Howden empty-netter with 32 seconds remaining, to down the Olympic host country. Against tougher competition in the Czechs and Russians, though, Canada was outscored 6-1 and finished the tournament with the second-worst goal differential and second-last in the standings. The only Canadian skater to finish with more than a single point all tournament was defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani, who potted a goal and an assist. Scrivens, meanwhile, allowed two goals on 10 shots against the South Koreans before the reins were handed to Barry Brust, who stopped 35 of 39 shots in contests against the Czechs and Russians.
It’s worrisome for the Canadian side that there has been no marked improvement in tournament finishes throughout their pre-Olympic schedule. Canada won bronze at the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov and Sochi Hockey Open in August, finished fourth at November’s Karjala Cup and finished fifth when up against all international competition at the Channel One Cup. Their final tuneup tournament won’t give them the opportunity to try their hand against potential Olympians, either, as the Spengler Cup sees Canada square off against several club teams, as well as a makeshift Swiss roster.
The only thing that could potentially turn the tide at the Olympics for Canada and the rest of the gold medal hopefuls is the KHL’s ruling as to whether it will send players to PyeongChang. The decision from the KHL does appear to remain up in the air, too. Initially, the KHL had announced it would send its players, but that portion of the league’s official release has since been removed. No team would be more hamstrung by the decision not to send KHL talent than Russia, which will be competing under the banner of Olympic Athletes from Russia after the International Olympic Committee delivered a ban on Russia as a result of widespread doping at the 2014 Games in Sochi. But other countries would also be dealt a serious blow if the KHL decides not to send its athletes. Canada, in particular, would lose a number of its players. All but six skaters on the Channel One Cup roster are under KHL contracts.
Assuming the KHL does, in fact, send its players, though, there may not be any national squad that can keep up with the deep and dangerous Russians. And while Canada enters the Olympics as two-time defending champions, the possibility of failing to reach the podium seems increasingly likely with the struggles to find results against top-flight competition.
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