Sixth place was not exactly what Russia had in mind heading into this year's World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, Canada. Nikita Filatov, one of the dominant players in last year's tournament (11 points, including eight goals in seven games) knew that it was his last chance to win gold at this level and he intended to take it.
"The first time I played in WJC in the Czech Republic we lost to Sweden in the semifinal," Filatov said. "Second time, last year, we were five seconds away from knocking out Canada and going to the final. Because of all this I was really hoping to win the gold medal in this tournament.
"When I realize that it was my last chance to win the WJC it becomes really hard to swallow. And not just for myself, but for the whole country, that believed in our victory. We not only let ourselves down. We let our whole country down. That's why it's twice as upsetting."
Russia never looked like a cohesive team in this tournament. The first sign of trouble was a sensational pre-WJC exhibition loss to a weak Latvian team (which was beaten by very lopsided scores by all the top countries including a 16-0 hammering at the hands of Canada).
This was followed by an unconvincing 6-2 win over another team destined for relegation, Austria, in the opening game.
While the sports media and fans in Russia were alarmed, Russia was 2-0 after the first two games thanks to to their 2-0 win over Finland, and it was hoped they would get it together for the medal round.
What was especially troubling was that Russia were completely outplayed by the Finns (they were outshot 46-17) and achieved victory only due to spectacular goaltending by their most impressive player, Igor Bobkov, who came up with a 46-save shutout. Incomprehensibly the player of the game award went to Filatov.
What followed was a 4-1 loss to Sweden in which Russia was never in the game despite Bobkov's best efforts to keep the Swedes at bay.
Russia did beat a very mediocre Czech Republic squad 5-2 in the last game of the group stage, but the score flattered them. It was a close game until the end.
There were clear signs of trouble at this point. The team looked completely disjointed and inept tactically. Their power play, usually a strong suit of Russian teams, was embarrassingly ineffective.
They were not creating many chances and giving up a lot, many due to terrible giveaways all over the ice. At that point I even posted on Twitter that I thought they'd be lucky to get to the semifinal.
As it turned out, I was correct and Russia crashed and burned in the quarterfinal against an undermanned Swiss team, which lost their two best defensemen, Luca Sbisa and Roman Josi prior to that game. Ironically, it was Russia's best game at the tournament as they dominated the Swiss.
However, they were not able to solve Benjamin Conz more than twice despite putting 52 shots on his net and managed to fall asleep not once, but twice in the last 30 seconds of regulation and overtime allowing late game tying and game winning goals.
Finding itself out of medal contention, Russia still had one more game to play because, for some reason, the IIHF insists on holding a completely meaningless game for fifth place.
Prior to this game, Filatov was stripped of his captaincy by Russian head coach Vladimir Plyushchev. Russia went on to lose this game 3-4 to Finland and Filatov finished with just one goal in the whole tournament.
It didn't take very long for the blame game to get underway. A very public war of words between the Russian captain Filatov and head coach Plyushchev ensued in the Russian media.
The Following are some quotes from both parties published by Sport Express (interviews conducted by Alexander Shapiro and Andrei Osadchenko) and the web portal AllHockey.ru.
Plyushchev on Filatov
"The main cause of our performance was my mistake in choosing the captain. A captain should be an example of how to behave on the ice, in the locker room and outside the arena. We trusted Filatov with the captaincy hoping that his experience would help him and his teammates be successful.
"Unfortunately, Filatov did not get it. He failed as a leader. After the game with Switzerland, I came to the locker room and apologized in front of the team for my choice of captain. Filatov was not worthy of wearing the C.
"When I suggested Filatov as captain I was hoping for a different result, for a different approach to what we hoped to achieve. We didn't need an exhibition of individual skill on the ice. The number of points that Nikita got in this tournament he should have had in one period against Austria. And he got a lot of ice time.
"I had issues not only with how Nikita played, but also with how he prepared for games. How is it possible that I had to constantly tell an adult that he shouldn't be late for practices and warm-ups? A captain should be an example for everybody, not someone that puts himself above everyone.
"I had a serious talk with Filatov after the exhibition loss to Latvia. He assured me that everything is going to be fine, but then was once again invisible in our first game against Austria. I even told him, 'If you don't wanna play, leave the ice.' A captain has no right to play like that.
"We constantly practiced the power play, but it didn't work during games. We were relying on Filatov, but he seemed to play his own game. We told him many times that diagonal passes won't work, but he replied that HIS diagonal passes work. You all saw how well they worked.
"I do not accept any responsibility for this result. We did what we could with this squad. Our country should seriously think about youth hockey."
Filatov on Plyushchev
"I always thought that a team was one whole consisting of players and the head coach. After the game against Switzerland Vladimir Anatolyevich (Plyushchev) took all the responsibility off himself and put the blame squarely on the players. I don't understand how that's possible.
"During the first intermission of the game against Switzerland Plyushchev said that we completely bombed as a team even though we totally dominated. The Swiss mainly dumped the puck out of their zone and had only five shots on our net, and even those from the blue line. Plyushchev went on to yell at us and personally insulted particular players, including me.
"The same thing was happening on the bench during our quarterfinal. In fact, I remember the coach saying anything positive only once or twice during the whole tournament. He mainly just yelled at us.
"We only trained for one week at our base in Novogorsk and then one more week in Regina prior to the tournament. In all this time we only did five or six exercises. We practiced 2-on-1's, 3-on-2's and 'vertushka' (two passes followed by a one timer), 5-on-4 in the offensive zone and shots from the point.
"The main problem in my opinion was that in those two weeks we never practices breakouts out of our own zone when on the power play. That is why when we played strong opponents we couldn't setup in their zone or even enter it. The coach never proposed any power play tactics and just let us do whatever we felt was necessary.
"Aside from not spending more than 15-20 minutes on this in practice that time was divided between all four lines even though the third and fourth line was never used on the power play during the WJC.
"Breakouts from our own zone were never practiced at all and each line tried to do them in their own way during the tournament.
"I understand that a coach can't teach a team a lot of new things in two weeks, but we were never taught any tactics. Not how to defend in our own zone, not how to break out, not what to do on the power play. All of these things are key to being a successful team. Nothing of the sort happened.
"I was very surprised that we never had any video sessions designed to correct our mistakes. Not one. The coach also did not seem to know much about our opponents and made only very general statements about them. I thought this was very strange.
"I was late for practice only once, along with three other players. The stories about me always being late are nothing but blatant lies. Plyushchev also talked behind my back to my teammates saying things like, 'Filatov is impossible to talk with. He has a crown on his head,' while never making any attempts to discuss any issues with me directly.
"For example, during the Austria game he never said to me, 'If you don't want to play get off the ice.' He said that on the bench while I was actually on the ice and I only found out about it the next day from my roommate Vyacheslav Kulemin. I was very distraught by such approach.
"I was not just upset about Plyushchev's treatment of me personally, but for my teammates also. He constantly benched Maxim Trunev giving him conflicting instructions. No matter what Max did Plyushchev wasn't happy and told him to do the opposite. If he took a shot he told him to stickhandle more, if he stickhandled he told him to shoot more.
"Any actions by our most technically gifted player Alexander Burmistrov, whether during games or in practices Plyushchev called 'glamor crap' and instructed him to knock it off.
"I accept responsibility for not playing up to expectations, but I did what I could under the circumstances and really tried hard. I'm very sad at how it all turned out. Plyushchev was unable to create a good atmosphere in our squad."
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