Don't sleep on the Russians with Bragin as coach
Russia wins over the U.S. in a quarterfinal match at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship at the Bell Center on January, 2, 2015. (PIERRE-PAUL POULIN/LE JOURNAL DE MONTRÉAL/QMI AGENCY)
If you've got a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach that this Canadian march to world junior gold looks too good to be true, you've probably noticed the rather massive elephant – or should we say bear – still in the room.
No one has snuffed out the Russians yet.
The Americans couldn't do it and, now, it's Sweden's turn to try in the semifinal Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.
The biggest reason to fear these roller-coaster Russians, who looked awful at times in the preliminary round, isn't any one player on the ice. They've got a good enough team when they play together and move the puck in transition to be more than a handful.
But it's the man behind them on the bench – or, should we say, the guy who stood on top of the Bell Centre boards like it was a balance beam during timeouts in the win over the Yanks – who has this group starting to believe.
Valeri Bragin is the best of the remaining four coaches left in this medal round. What's that worth to a team at this level?
So far, he has avoided lengthy interviews with the English media here with the same grace Rudolf Nureyev used to move around a dance floor. But if you talk to those in the Russian camp around him, it's not hard to get to the root of his guile.
He stood on the boards because he wanted to look into his players' eyes and give them his energy. North American rinks don't have the same space at the bench area as in Europe to stand in front of the players, but the dasher boards are much wider, apparently enough to walk on.
“I saw it a couple games ago,” said Russian Ivan Barbashev, a St. Louis Blues draft pick. “I was like, 'Whoa, OK.' I was kind of surprised but it gave us energy on the bench.”
It's a tactic to get Bragin's message across loud and clear. But aren't his players petrified he's going to take a misstep, fall, and crack his head open on the ice?
“Sometimes, I'm thinking about that,” Barbashev said with a grin. “It hasn't happened yet, so hopefully, it won't happen in this tournament.
“But still, it's pretty funny.”
Until they beat the Americans, the Russians looked like they were doing the zombie shuffle into the abyss.
They needed a shootout to beat Denmark. They were robbed against the Swedes. They were undisciplined against the Swiss and they stunk against the Czechs.
They were forced to take the train to Montreal for the quarterfinal, but the team never really did pack much of their belongings for the journey.
The clear message was it was a business-only trip. They would be returning to Toronto prepared to play for a medal.
That's the Bragin way.
The players love him because they know what he is capable of building with them.
He is Russia's “Kingmaker,” the coach who orchestrated the unforgettable five-goal, third-period comeback win at Buffalo four years ago – the one that left current Senators coach Dave Cameron and Hockey Canada with egg on their face.
That Russian team – the one kicked off its plane for partying too hard the next day – is adored back home. If you go back and look at their roster, it isn't a group who has gone on to great NHL or KHL success.
They were just a tough bunch who overcame great odds under Bragin.
“He's a great coach, obviously, and everyone knows him,” Barbashev said. “He had a huge experience a couple of years ago in the final against Canada. It's really nice he's our coach.
“He always gives us energy. He's always supporting and help us.”
Three years ago in Calgary, Bragin led Russia to their wild 6-5 semifinal win over Canada before falling to the Swedes. The only time he hasn't finished ahead of the Canucks in this event was his 2005 team with Ovechkin and Malkin, buried in the Grand Forks, N.D. final by the Brent Sutter-led Canadian team regarded as the greatest of all-time.
That's the concern here with the wily Bragin.
This is why many clamoured for an NHL-calibre coach, like Dale Hunter in London, to run this Canadian club.
If the host team is to win its first gold in six years, Benoit Groulx will have to out-wit either Sweden's Rikard Gronborg – who was on the Olympic bench in Sochi – or Bragin.
The Canadian trail may look like a walk in the park now – but it won't be in a real hurry.
Not with Bragin still breathing.