Russians facing uphill climb after loss to Sweden
Russia's Ivan Fishenko is hit into the boards during a game at the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championships at the Air Canada Centre on December 29, 2014. (Dave Abel/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency)
Raise your hands if you feel sorry for the Russians right now?
Didn't think so.
You can't label this World Junior Championship a disaster yet, but the Russians are speeding towards the cliff. Their four-year medal streak -- the longest of any nation -- is in peril, and they're only partly to blame.
In their opener, they woke up in time to come back and beat Denmark in a shootout. They crushed the Swiss while killing a boatload of penalties and losing effective forward Anatoli Golyshev to a suspension.
Then, they fell to Sweden in a cloud of controversy over video review of a goal denied.
The Russian roller coaster faces the Czechs Wednesday. They are trying to take all these recent calamities in stride.
"Our character is to come from behind (when down in the dumps)," captain Vladislav Gavrikov said. "This does make us stronger."
They have 19 players who are 19-years-old and a bunch of KHL-playing pros on their roster. There's too much talent to push them overboard this early.
But by not winning the Toronto pool, they're staring at having to move camp to Montreal for their quarterfinal, then rushing back again if they manage to survive that game.
It's hard enough at this event to win the second of back-to-back games. So it's even more difficult to believe the champion will be a team forced to shuttle between the two host cities during the playoff round.
Valeri Bragin has done some amazing things at the helm of the Russian junior program. He's the King Maker after ending Russia's eight-year golden drought with an unforgettable third-period comeback against Canada four years ago at Buffalo.
Bragin uses an interpreter when he addresses the English-speaking media. But the other day, he was asked if this much early adversity can ultimately help a team in the long run.
He didn't wait for translation.
"Yes," he said.
GROUP B ALL KINDS OF WILD
Denmark coach Olaf Eller was captain of the 1990 Danish League champion Rodovre Mighty Bulls.
Valeri Bragin was that team's player-coach.
But after making history with the nation's first top-tier world junior championship victory in a 4-3 shootout decision over the Swiss Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, the Danish boss said he wouldn't call his old pal to encourage him to beat the Czechs in regulation Wednesday.
That -- or a Swedish regulation win over the Swiss -- will vault these late Danes to their first quarterfinal at this event.
“He (Bragin, now the Russian junior coach) knows what to do,” said Eller, dad of Montreal Canadien Lars Eller and younger brother Mads, a top forward on this Danish team. “I trust Russia and Sweden. I guess they will win, but most people thought the Swiss would beat us.
“You never know what can happen in ice hockey.”
This Toronto pool is wild. The only thing for sure is Sweden will finish atop it.
The rest is up for grabs after the Danes got 42 more saves from little Georg Sorensen before a crowd of 13,263. He has been Danish dynamite in two games since being yanked early against the Swedes.
“That was the right move by Olaf to pull me in that game,” he said after stopping Nashville first-rounder Kevin Fiala and San Jose second-rounder Noah Rod in the shootout. “I haven't thought about it since. I always thought we had a good team – our group of 1995 (born) players has played together since we were 15 – but no one really knew who we were here.
“It was great to hear the Toronto fans up there cheering for Denmark.”
The Danes started the tourney with a shootout loss to Russia. They also lost in overtime to the Czechs.
They have a terrific power play (6-for-16 through four games), but haven't held onto any of their three leads this week.
They fell behind by two early against the Swiss. Eller used his timeout eight minutes into the first period and the Danes fought back.
Talented Nikolai Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, denied in the Russian shootout, both scored this time and Sorensen stood tall to win the breakaway contest 2-1.
“You can't describe,” Ehlers said, “what the guys are like in the dressing room. We're so happy right now.”
BEST OF THE REST
If Adrian Kempe didn't miss the Danish game with a stomach ailment, he would probably be the tournament's leading scorer. The Swedish star picked up two assists in his return against Russia and now has four points in two games -- all on the power play. "I had a good start (to the week), then that happened," the Kings first-rounder said. "My legs were a little tired at the start of the game, but they'll be back for the next one (Wednesday against the Swiss). It was disappointing to miss a game. I hadn't been sick like that in something like eight years." His comeback wasn't completely pain-free. He took a high-stick in the Russian game. "Right in the throat," he said. Tough couple of days ... Swiss defenceman Phil Baltisberger, removed from the ice by stretcher against Russia, skated Tuesday morning but didn't play against the Danes. "It's muscular (pain in his neck), so that's the good news," Swiss coach John Fust said. "There's no bone or ligament damage. He's not ready to play." Fust is hopeful the four-year world junior veteran will play again this week. "We'll have to see," he said. "Those sort of things are tough. It comes down to strength, being able to hold your stick and make plays. I know he's a tough kid and he should be back" ... Get ready for a high-scoring game between the Czechs and Russians Wednesday. The two can't stop taking penalties (they are ranked No. 1 and 2 at over 20 minutes per game) and both have been horrendous on the penalty kill ... Wondering why the Finns are 0-3? Their special teams have been brutal, too ... The Swiss coaching staff includes Luca Cereda, a Maple Leafs first-rounder in 1999. He spent two-and-a-half years with the Baby Leafs in St. John's, Nfld., before heading home to play pro in Bern. The level of coaching in the Swiss league has grown the past decade with Kevin Constantine, Bob Hartley, Marc Crawford and, now, Guy Boucher spending time running benches there. "These were all NHL coaches of the year," Fust said. "There's a trickle-down effect, of course, but there's a new generation of coaches coming up." Former Swiss NHLers like one-time Arizona Coyote Patrick Fischer are stepping into coaching and development. "That's where Swiss hockey has taken a step forward," Fust said. "When I hear commentators on NHL.com or whatever say the (instruction) level has gone up because so and so is over there, that's not really where the credit is due." ... The controversial non-goal call in the Russia-Sweden game wasn't supposed to be replayed on the ACC scoreboard until after the video review, but it was up there for everyone to see. It was great. Sports brass always worry about inciting fans, but for the ticket prices they're charging, get that stuff up there immediately. Heck, wire up every seat so fans can instantly vote on a video review's outcome: (A) Goal, (B) No goal or, as 90% of coaches and players say, (C) "I didn't see it". It's called fan interaction.