2013 WJC Review: Russia settles for bronze on home ice
Team Russia's bronze medal can be deemed as a good result on home soil, though not the result that was hoped for at the 2013 World Junior Championship. They surrendered to Sweden in the semifinals in the shoot-out, but the win over Canada in the bronze medal game surely cheered up the home crowd.
The win fulfilled the official expectation from the FHR, who set to head coach Mikhail Varnakov the task of getting a medal, but many accused Varnakov of playing too conservatively. This could actually have had some impact on Team Russia’s game, especially considering the very good offensive forwards the team featured in their lineup.… read more
The Russian Hockey Federation may have issued a press release prior to the tournament saying that their goal was to "win a medal" in Ufa, but I strongly doubt that there is any pride, satisfaction or sense of fulfillment over the Bronze that Russia earned. Clearly, their "real" goal was to win a Gold Medal in front of the home fans, a goal for which Varnakov and his team fell disappointingly short. I will be really surprised if there is any intent among the RHF hierarchy to bring Varnakov back next year, or any other measure of faith that his strategy and tactics can work.
The matter may be a little touchy because Varnakov was reportedly hand-picked by National Team coach Bilyaletdinov as a practicing disciple of Coach Bill's defense-first philosophy. There was optimism about Varnakov before the tournament after he introduced periodization training in the team camp, which had been used very effectively during the Soviets' most successful era (e.g., the 1979 Challenge Cup). The players were given exceptionally heavy physical training loads, which would supposedly cause them to move from exhaustion to a steady timeline of recovery, so that by the time of the medal round, the team would be flying around skating the other teams into the ice. Obviously, Varnakov's periodization training didn't work, as the team played as if they were exhausted for the full duration of the tournament. Maybe that technique works well with fully trained men, but not so well with 18- and 19-year olds.
Varnakov's defense-first philosophy not only failed to produce good defense, but also had the effect of neutering a potentially potent offense. The Russians defense backed in and surrendered the blue line as a matter of strategy throughout the tournament, in the hope of "rope-a-doping" the other team into turning over the puck, but the strategy backfired. Other teams easily controlled the puck just outside the slot, while players without the puck drove to the net to force goal-mouth scrambles with the puck pinballing around. The Russian defensemen were consistently unable to handle opposing players driving to the net. Even Germany had a lot of good chances in close, and forced great saves by Vasilevsky to keep the puck out.
Despite the presence of good talent, the Russian offense never really got going. There was no scheme or rhythym, no offensive flow, and only the Kucherov-Grigorenko-Slepyshev line came close to posing a consistent offensive threat. The tactic of hanging a forward like Yakupov up near the blue line for a breakaway was a colossal failure. In the rare instances when the puck got to them, the forwards found themselves attacking all alone against 2 or 3 defenders. The team was really undisciplined offensively, with a lot of apparent selfish, individualistic play, and the responsibility for that has to rest with the head coach.
Tretyak and his RHF counterparts may have been relieved after winning Bronze, especially against Canada, but they were hardly pleased with the way the tournament played out.