Much of the hype heading into the first game of the CHL-Russia Super Series revolved around Nail Yakupov’s return to Canada for the first time since he left for the KHL. It was also the first time 2012′s first overall pick would face 2013′s likely first overall pick, Nathan MacKinnon, who started on the top line for the QMJHL alongside Florida draft pick Jonathan Huberdeau.
Yakupov was supposed to play 50 games in Canada this season, more if the Oilers made the playoffs. So…50 games, then. Instead, if the lockout wipes out the entire NHL season, the 6 games of the Super Series may be his only games on Canadian soil.
Instead of Yakupov being the centre of attention, Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevski stole the show.
Vasilevski put together a masterful performance against the QMJHL All-Stars, making 31 saves on 33 shots, but it was the way he made the saves that was truly impressive. Despite his size, he was incredibly quick, particularly down low, where his long legs flashed out numerous times to kick aside dangerous shots.
That isn’t to say that Yakupov was bad, by any means. He just wasn’t nearly as impressive as Vasilevski.
Saying that he’s a butterfly goaltender does a tremendous disservice to the wingspan created by his legs. It would be better to say he played condor style or albatross style with the way his legs stretch out to cover the bottom of the net. With his height, he’s hard to beat high even when he goes down into that butterfly position.
Only 2 shots got past him for goals and both were on the powerplay: one was a perfectly placed wristshot by Red Wings prospect Xavier Ouellet that was simply unstoppable, going top corner over the blocker side while on a 5-on-3 powerplay. The other was a nifty move on a breakaway by Jean-Sebastien Dea, who managed to fool Vasilevski by tucking an off-speed shot five-hole.
At even-strength, Vasilevski was perfect, with his best save coming on Dea in the dying seconds of the first period. The QMJHL team moved the puck with precision to set up Dea at the side of the net, forcing Vasilevski into the splits with his glove outstretched, getting just the tip of his glove on the shot to turn it aside. At that point, the score was just 2-0 for Russia and a goal for the QMJHL would have given them something to hang their hat on going into the intermission.
Instead, Russia ran away with the game, eventually winning 6-2, despite being out-shot 33-to-27. Even those shot totals seem misleading, as the QMJHL badly out-shot Russia early in the first period and throughout the second, but were only able to get one goal past Vasilevski in that time.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have to like what they see inVasilevski. They also have to like his Lightning-themed mask, indicating he’s very excited about eventually playing in Tampa Bay. With new arrival Anders Lindback, along with prospects Dustin Tokarski and Jaroslav Janus, the Lightning look to be set in goal for a very long time.
Yakupov, for his part, was clearly one of the best players on the ice, scoring a goal and adding an assist in the victory, but he wasn’t even the best Russian skater. Mikhail Grigorenko earned that label, scoring the first goal of the game and adding an assist, while making pass after beautiful pass. He looked unfairly good, with his size and skill clearly outclassing most of the other players on the ice.
On the QMJHL side, Ouellet was easily their best player. His goal showcased the accuracy on his shot and he showed his offensive savvy by catching Russia on a change with a long pass for the QMJHL’s second goal. While he ended up a minus-2 on the night, he was generally matched up against the best Russia had to offer and acquitted himself nicely against tough competition.
Jonathan Huberdeau was next best, with his slick pass setting up Ouellet on the 5-on-3 between a Russian defenceman’s legs. He picked up his second assist of the game on Dea’s goal and hit a post on a set play off a faceoff in the offensive zone. MacKinnon won the draw, one of the few instances where he and Huberdeau seemed to click together.
MacKinnon showed some flash and some physicality, but had little to show for it at the end of the game. His poor drop pass entering the Russia zone resulted in the odd-man rush that led to Grigorenko’s opening goal and his over-aggressive hit in the neutral zone allowed Maxim Shalunov to go in 1-on-1 against Nikolas Brouillard, who gave Shalunov too much space and he took advantage, scoring Russia’s third goal. MacKinnon and Huberdeau were a team-low minus-four on the night.
The QMJHL will face Team Russia once again in Val D’Or on Wednesday, but will need to figure out how to beat Vasilevski at even-strength if they want to have any hope of winning. Russia now has a five-game winning streak against the QMJHL in the annual series and will look to extend it.