For a few minutes, there was no hiding their true feelings. Andrei Vasilevski had just turned in a starring performance, making the Swiss miss on all 40 of their shots on net.
And just like that, a victorious Vasilevski may have cemented the one crack in Russia’s hopes of defending its world junior hockey championship – its goaltending. Little wonder head coach Valeri Bragin let his guard down and acknowledged how his 17-year-old “goalkeeper was fantastic.”
Quickly, it was followed by a more conventional Bragin response. “I may or may not change the goalkeepers,” he said.
In case you didn’t see it, what Vasilevski did in Russia’s 3-0 win over Switzerland on Monday was equal parts workmanlike and spectacular. He repelled a gritty Swiss assault to send a message Russia is once again a gold-medal force to be reckoned with, even on a night when the goalkeeper was the only guy on his team to understand the concept of defence.
“He always plays good,” forward Mikhail Grigorenko said. “Sometimes like other players he has some mistakes but he’s a very good goaltender.”
“You can see the number of shots, the two-on-ones, the two breakaways [by Switzerland]” Bragin added. “The game could have been better than that, in general. But it was a very good game [by Vasilevski]”
So, he starts Wednesday against Slovakia, right?
“I may or may not rotate the goalkeepers.”
When the Russian team arrived in Alberta to begin its tournament preparations, the thinking was Andrei Makarov would start in goal. Makarov was familiar with North American-sized ice surfaces and even some of his rivals in the world junior tournament. He plays for the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades and had faced an assortment of Canadian Hockey League all-stars in the recent Subway Super Series.
Yet, there was something about Makarov’s play that bothered Bragin to the point where he added Vasilevski to the world junior roster. As one WHL outsider recently remarked, Makarov’s play was beginning to dip, perhaps from being overworked. At the Russian world junior camp, the 6-foot-3, 192-pound Vasilevski quickly proved his worth and sent fellow goaltender Sergei Kostenko packing. (Kostenko was one of five Russians released before the tournament officially opened.)
Since then, it’s been all about the kid who was raised to be a goaltender by a dad who played in net in the Russian league. You can spot the influences by watching Vasilevski’s positioning and technique, which stymied the Swiss on every opportunity they could manage.
“I was told the other day [he would be starting in Russia’s first game here]” a smiling Vasilevski said.
Was he surprised?
Vasilevski played for the Russian team at the 2010 under-18 world junior championship and took a 5-1 loss to Finland that left his country off the medal podium. He was 15 at the time and used the setback as a learning tool. Over the past two years, he’s played for Tolpar’s junior-age team in his home country. This past summer, he was drafted seventh overall by Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the Continental Hockey League. He is eligible for the 2012 NHL entry draft and his showing at these world juniors will determine where he’s chosen.
If he stays hot, Vasilevski hasn’t a worry. If he struggles, then all bets are off and Bragin starts shuffling. That’s what happened in Buffalo at the 2011 world juniors. Igor Bobkov started in goal then. When he faltered, Dimitri Shikin took over. When Shikin gave up three goals to Canada in the gold-medal final, he was benched and in came Bobkov, who allowed his side to storm back for a 5-3 final.
Asked again about his goaltending plans for these world juniors, Bragin continued to muddy the waters by saying he could do this, could do that. When told he’d made a good choice going with Vasilevski, the coach answered, “It is part of my job.”
With the lanky Vasilevski doing his part, the Russians look to be as strong a gold-medal contender as there is among the entries this year. For that, his teammates are eager for more and appreciative, too.
“He played good,” forward Nail Yakupov said. “And thanks to him.”