Imagine you're a small country, and you have this really big and powerful neighbour—the elephant to your mouse. Now imagine they speak the same language as you, have a culture that overwhelms yours; everything on TV is from there, all the music and the movies, and you know more about their politics than about your own. Foreigners can't tell you apart, say you should just merge anyway, and have no idea why that just makes you stare at them incredulously.
Now imagine they are better at hockey than you. Much, much better.
Belarus doesn't have to imagine, and today they faced their elephant in the World Junior Championships. To make it even harder, Finland is right next door to Russia, so there were lots of Russian fans in the crowd.
Off the drop, Russia took it easy for a bit, took a penalty, easily killed it off, and then they started spending all their time in front of Vladislav Verbitski, the goalie Belarus chose to face the Russians and the man who was surely their best player.
Belarus gave up a power play and very quickly gave up a power play goal. The Russians squeezed the Belarusian PK unit into the smallest box the slot can hold and easily passed the puck around until the perfect opening to score was right in front of them. Vladislav Kamenev, one of only a few players in the tournament (alongside William Nylander and Kasperi Kapanen) likely to see some NHL time soon, set it up, and Maxim Lazarev got the goal.
Two more goals followed, another on the power play from Alexander Polunin and a goal in the final minutes at even strength from Kamenev with assists by Ivan Provorov and Lazarev.
In the second period, Belarus got their first shot about 4 minutes in. Russia played a little sloppy for a bit, including some less than perfect play from goalie Ilya Samsonov, but they shook it off quickly and dominated what ended as a scoreless period.
Russia made an interesting goalie usage choice in this tournament. They put Alexandar Georgiyev in against Finland yesterday and used their top man, Samsonov, today against the much weaker team. Perhaps the point was to give Georgiyev a challenge early on, or it might have been Georgiyev's experience in the Liiga in Finland that got him the job against the Finns.
Samsonov, drafted in the first round in 2015 by the Washington Capitals was ranked by In Goal Magazine as the third best goaltending prospect last summer. He has been playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL for most of the year and has a save percentage of .929 in 14 games. He looked very at ease against a not very challenging Belarusian offence.
In the third period, Verbitski kept Belarus in the game with a lot of great saves and a little luck—Lazarev had an open net and somehow couldn't tip it in.
Belarus got into some up-and-down action with the Russians, were tough on the forecheck, got a little more luck when a Russian player lost his stick, and stole the puck and poked it in past Samsonov. Alexei Patsenkin had the goal from Alexei Busko.
But Russia had so much power to draw on, and Polunin made it 4-1 less than two minutes later. The top two lines for Russia were providing all the scoring, but they have depth to draw on and Belarus never got a moment's ease in the game.
The forward corps is primarily KHL players along with Kamenev who plays in the AHL , Lazarev and Evgeny Svechnikov (19th overall pick by the Detroit Red Wings in 2015) who both play for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the QMJHL, and Radel Fazleev who plays in the WHL.
The Russian top line, Polunin, Yegor Korshkov and Pavel Kraskovski, all play for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the KHL.
The Russians look big, strong, tough—they physically dominated the Finnish top line at times on Monday—and they play a mature game. Add in their very good goaltending, and they have to be considered one of the medal contenders in the tournament.
The Russian team never quite rolled over and squashed Belarus, but they were in charge of the whole game, start to finish. They final shot on goal count was 32-18 for Russia with Svechnikov responsible for 6 while Kamenev and Polunin each had 4.