Russia and Canada have had a long history of animosity. From the Summit Series, to the World Juniors, it seems that any hockey played on the international stage begs for a Russia-Canada matchup. Although, for a long time Russians, who have been quite successful internationally, have had a difficult time transitioning to the North American style game in the NHL.
Generally speaking, this is the result of different styles of play and different skill sets that Canada and Russia pride themselves on. Russia loves the finesse game, where as Canadian players take pride in playing “hard”, and not being afraid to get dirty to win games—and maybe even lose a few teeth in the process.
However, looking around the “New NHL” this season, it would seem the agonizing rule changes put in place after the 2005 lockout may be turning the tide in the favor of the Russians.
Now this isn’t to say there haven’t been quality Russian players in the NHL before. There have been plenty, like Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny, and of course “The Russian Rocket,” Pavel Bure. Although a new crop of young guns seem to be taking their place atop the ranks of the NHL’s elite while pushing their Canadian rivals aside at the same time.
Three of the top five point leaders, and goal scorers in the NHL to date are Russian-born players, where as Canadian players fill out the other two spots in each category. Alex Ovechkin is the premier name leading the way in both categories with 107 points and 61 goals to date. He is a lock to win the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals, and a top candidate for both the Art Ross, for total points, and the Hart Trophy for league MVP.
Some will argue that due to Sidney Crosby’s absence from an ankle injury, Ovechkin may be leading the points race without having been challenged by the league’s other best player, although Ovechkin’s dynamic play combined with his team’s late season push for the playoffs would make him a solid Hart candidate regardless.
Hot on Ovechkin’s heels though is Crosby’s Pittsburgh teammate, Evgeni Malkin. Ovechkin’s countryman has been right behind him in the points race most of the year and emerged as a huge leader for the Penguins in the wake of Crosby’s absence. He currently sits second in league scoring with 101 points.
Furthermore, Ilya Kovalchuk, despite falling off towards the end of the year still remains in second in the goals category with 50, while Pavel Datsyuk ranks fourth in the points race with 91. Even Evgeni Nabokov leads the NHL with 43 wins as the goalie for the San Jose Sharks.
While it may be a little early to say the Russians are taking over the NHL, there certainly have been some major strides made. Even the young Kostitsyn brothers, Sergei and Andrei in Montreal have been making waves and helping lead a surprising Canadiens team to the top of the Eastern Conference, with 29 and 55 points respectively.
Canadian hockey talent still exists, highlighted by the fact that both Jerome Iginla and Vinny Lecavalier sit at third and fifth in the points and goals categories. Although, judging by the year Russia has been having, Canada had better start looking over its shoulder, because the competition is catching up.