With less than a year until the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I will preview the goaltending for each country going into the Olympics in a weekly series. Today I take a look at Russia, one of the favorites to win gold in their own country. Will some good NHL goaltenders be left off in favor of some KHL netminders?
Sergei Bobrovsky: There were some questions regarding whether or not Bobrovsky could handle the load as a starting goalie in the NHL, and after getting traded to Columbus during the summer last year, it was definitely going to be tough. But not only is he probably the biggest reason why the Blue Jackets could make the playoffs over Detroit this season, but he could end up winning the Vezina trophy as the top goaltender in the entire league. Bobrovsky has been good enough so far to win a Vezina, and if he keeps it up, he may find himself among the finalists for the Hart Trophy, too. Bobrovsky participated in the 2007 Super Series, an eight-game series between Canadian and Russian juniors commemorating the 35th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series, and garnered the most ice-time of any goaltender. At the end of that year, he played in the 2008 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, backstopping Russia to a bronze medal. After playing his first four professional seasons with Metallurg Novokuznetsk in Russia, Bobrovsky signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, and after two seasons of splitting time with both Brian Boucher and Ilya Bryzgalov, he was traded to the Blue Jackets in exchange for Columbus’ second-round and a fourth-round picks in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and Phoenix’s fourth-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. After starting the season in the KHL thanks to the NHL lockout, Bob has posted incredible stats, putting up a 2.06 GAA and a .930 save percentage in 36 games that includes 19 victories. If he continues his fantastic play next season, look for Bobrovsky to get the starting nod in Sochi.
Ilya Bryzgalov: At the top of his game, Bryzgalov can be one of the best goalies in the world. When not, the five-hole is almost a certain goal. While he has the skill to lead the Russian’s in 2014, he may not have the consistency to prove that he can handle the load during the two week period. Bryzgalov competed for Russia in the 2000 World Junior Championships in Umeå, where he recorded a 0.77 GAA in 4 games to help Russia to a silver medal. Later that year, he was named to the Russia’s senior team for the 2000 World Championships, where he played in 4 games, but failed to reach the podium. Two years later, he competed for Russia at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City earning bronze. He played in a more expanded role, however, at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, playing in 240 minutes and recording a 2.34 GAA in 3 games. Bryzgalov received his first international gold medal at the 2009 World Championships, beating Canada in the final. In 2010, Bryz got a limited opportunity to play for the 6th place Russians, but it was going to be hard to not have Evgeni Nabokov, who was looking strong prior to the tournament, just sit on the bench and watch. Last year, he was often a disaster between the pipes for the Flyers, and as a result became a common target for criticism This season was a bit better, with Bryzgalov being the only reason the team didn’t lose a lot more than they could have, but as of late he has been replaced by Steve Mason as the starting goalie. Is he good enough to be on the national team? Yes, I truly believe so. Will he be in Sochi? That, I can’t answer.
Nikolai Khabibulin: Khabby will more than likely not get any action at the 2014 games if he does get named, but his vast big game experience (Olympic tournaments/Stanley Cup championship) could be helpful in the locker room. Khabibulin made his international debut with the Soviet Union at the 1991 European Junior Championships. He appeared in the 1992 World Junior Championships the next year and won a gold medal with the Commonwealth of Independent States, appearing in six games. Khabibulin and the national team had begun the tournament as the Soviet Union, but the state was dissolved following the round robin on New Year’s Day, thus they proceeded to compete as the CIS. That same year, Khabibulin appeared in the 1992 Winter Olympics with the CIS as the third goaltender. Controversy arose after the CIS captured the gold medal when legendary Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov kept a medal for himself (coaches and management are not awarded medals in Olympic hockey) instead of allowing Khabibulin to have one, as Khabibulin had not played a game in the tournament. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, in which the 1992 gold medal conflict was resolved, Khabibulin established himself as the national team’s starting goaltender. He helped Russia to a bronze medal while appearing in all six games, and was named Best Goaltender of the tournament. Khabibulin is approaching the end of a fine career at 40 years old, but will be a valuable veteran voice if added to the team.
Evgeni Nabokov: Nabokov is part of a rare breed of goaltenders to compete with two different countries at international hockey events. While he is a Russian citizen, he was previously denied permission by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to play for Russia, because he had played for Kazakhstan as a 19-year-old in the 1994 World Championships. In 2005, Nabokov was granted permission to play for Russia in the IIHF World Championships, but declined. Nabokov had tried to gain the IIHF’s permission to play for Russia at the 2002 Winter Olympics, but failed as there were regulations in place forbidding players from representing two different countries. He was finally allowed to play for Russia in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, after being given an exemption by the IIHF, and was named to the Russian team for the 2008 World Championships. During the 2008 World Championships he posted back-to-back shutouts before defeating Canada 5-4 in the Gold Medal game. Team Russia won the 2008 IIHF World Championships, earning Nabokov his first gold medal in an international competition. Nabokov was a big reason why the New York Islanders gained a playoff birth this season and at the grand age of 37, he’s out to prove he still has something left in the tank.
Stanislav Galimov: Galimov was one of the best goaltenders in the KHL this past season, which gives him a shot, although it is a long one. As a member of Atlant Mytishchi this season, Galimov posted a 1.94 GAA and .943 SP in 25 games to go along with 14 wins, a tremendous season no doubt. He split the past couple seasons between Neftyanik Almetievsk of the VHL and Ak Bars Kazan KHL with mixed results. Prior to heading to the professional ranks, Galimov won a U20 WJC Bronze Medal in 2007-2008 with Russia as a backup, but hasn’t played internationally since. As a backup with Kazan, he won back to back KHL Gagarin Cup Championships, however he wasn’t in their future plans. Nonetheless, his performance this past season should be good enough for him to get a look going into the selection camp, but with many NHLer’s looking for a spot, its unlikely he will make the team. It wouldn’t be shocking for the Russian’s to bring a goalie currently playing in Russia as the third goalie, however.
Semyon Varlamov: Varlamov will be at the Olympics in 2014, but whether he will be the starter or not is still yet to be seen. Varlamov was a backup for Russia during the 2005 IIHF World U18 Championships, where they finished fifth. He then earned the backup position over Lokomotiv-2 teammate Ivan Kaustin for Russia at the 2006 World Junior Championships as a seventeen-year-old. Backing up Anton Khudobin, Varlamov did not see much ice time, skating only in a game against Latvia, allowing one goal in a 3–1 round robin win. He earned a silver medal with Russia as they were defeated 5–0 in the final by Canada. Later that year, Varlamov established himself as the starting netminder for Russia’s under-18 squad at the 2006 IIHF World U18 Championships and finished in fifth place. He began the 2007 Super Series as Russia’s starter at the under-20 level, but was later pulled in the series in favour of Sergei Bobrovsky. He regained the starting position at the 2007 World Junior Championships and recorded a 1.51 GAA (second among tournament goalies to Carey Price of Canada) along with 2 shutouts. Russia was, however, defeated by Canada for the second consecutive year in the gold medal game to earn another silver medal. Varlamov was selected to represent Russia for the 2010 Olympics. He was the youngest man on the team by two years. He was the third goaltender on the team, behind starter Nabokov, and backup Bryzgalov. Playing with the Colorado Avalanche this year, he’s having a little trouble with goal support but is still looking solid between the pipes. Behind a high scoring Russian team in Sochi, Varlamov would be a solid goaltender capable of bringing home a medal for the red, white and blue.
1. Sergei Bobrovsky
2. Semyon Varlamov
3. Evgeni Nabokov
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