How many masked men?

Goalie Igor Bobkov replaced Dmitri Shikin against Canada the last time these rivals played for gold in 2011, a 5-3 Russian comeback win. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

Russia often uses both its goalies vs. Canada

It’s rare that a coach who uses both his goalies in one game wins. Yet Russia has employed that strategy successfully against Canada in the recent past.

Look no further than the playoff games of the new millennium.

In 2011, Russia trailed Canada 3-0 early in the second period of the gold medal game in Buffalo. When Brayden Schenn scored Canada’s third goal, coach Valeri Bragin (who’s Russia’s bench boss again this year) yanked starter Dmitri Shikin in favour of Igor Bobkov.

It paid off. The 20-year-old Bobkov, then playing for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs, didn’t surrender another goal. Russia roared back in the third with five unanswered goals, sparked by Yevgeni Kuznetsov’s three assists.

The following year, Canada and Russia had a rematch in the semi-finals in Calgary. It looked like it was all over for the hosts with the Russians leading 6-1 halfway through the third period. Kuznetsov had a hat trick and goalie Andrei Vasilevski looked outstanding with close to 40 saves.

But then arguably the most exciting failed comeback in World Junior history began. Brendan Gallagher had a goal and two assists as the Canadians cut the deficit to 6-5 with 5:43 remaining. The Saddledome crowd was going wild. At that moment, Bragin again changed goalies, taking out Vasilevski and putting in Andrei Makarov – another CHLer from the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. Makarov was impregnable, and the Russians advanced to the gold medal game, where they lost 1-0 to Sweden.

In another example, the Russians went down 3-1 to Canada in the 2002 gold medal game in Pardubice, Czech Republic. The solution? Out came starting goalie Andrei Medvedev, and in went his backup, Sergei Mylnikov. The Russians woke up and tallied three unanswered goals. Even though Canada’s Chuck Kobasew tied the game at 4-4 with about five and half minutes to go, Russian captain Anton Volchenkov’s blast from the blue line at 16:51 of the third gave his team the victory.

Using multiple netminders hasn’t had the same beneficial effect for the Canadians against their historic archrivals. (See the aforementioned 2012 semi-final, when Mark Visentin took over from Scott Wedgewood halfway through the game, or the 2013 bronze medal game, which saw Malcolm Subban replacing Jordan Binnington when Russia – the eventual 6-5 winner – took a 3-1 lead early in the first period.)

Of course, changing the goalie hasn’t always paid off for Russia versus Canada either.

In 2005, when the best Canadian World Junior team ever took a 3-1 lead on Russia early in the second period of the final, backup Andrei Kuznetsov took over from starter Anton Khudobin. It made no difference. The squad starring Alexander Ovechkin and Yevgeni Malkin went down to a crushing 6-1 defeat regardless in Grand Forks, North Dakota. (Khudobin would go the distance in a 5-0 loss to Canada in the 2006 final in Vancouver, and Semyon Varlamov did the same when Canada topped Russia 4-2 in 2007 in Leksand, Sweden.)

Is there a lesson to be learned from this litany of goaltending changes?

Really, it just emphasizes that modern-day Russian hockey – in contrast with its machine-like Soviet incarnation – is highly unpredictable. Both the goalies and the teams as a whole are likely to go through wild mood swings, even within one game. Battles with Canada are as emotionally charged as they come, and the Russian coach sometimes needs to gamble that making a switch will turn his team's fortunes around.

There are things that recommend both the netminders at Bragin’s disposal today. Igor Shestyorkin is coming off two excellent playoff performances, a 3-2 quarter-final win over the United States and a 4-1 semi-final victory over Sweden. In exhibition play at the Air Canada Centre on December 19, Sergei Sorokin made a whopping 52 saves in a 2-1 overtime win over Canada.

Will we see both of them or just one of them?

Naturally, the partisan Toronto crowd will be hoping that when the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship gold medal game is all over, everyone only remembers one goalie’s name: Zach Fucale. And only for the right reasons.

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