Monday, 14 November 2016

Canada-Russia Series Game 4: Canada 4, Russia 2

Game 4 of the Canada-Russia Series promised to be exciting for the average Canadiens fan and draft nerd, with 4 prospects slated to play, namely 2016 first-rounder  Mikhail Sergachev for Team Russia, and defenceman Victor Mete, winger Will Bitten and goalie Michael McNiven for the OHL squad.  Victor Mete and Will Bitten were also 2016 picks, and long-shots to make the World Junior Championship Team Canada, since the tournament is known as a '19-year-old tournament'.  If anything, they are trying to leave an impression with Hockey Canada brass for next year's tournament.

Mikhail Sergachev seemed like a lock to make the Russian team though, if only in our opinion of our latest jewel in the crown, and his pedigree and production last year.  News that he wouldn't play in this game, after playing on Thursday for Team Russia, is the first inkling of a doubt for this fan though.  The Russian team has a well-known practice of favouring KHL and MHL players for inclusion on its international teams, players who are 'in the system', as opposed to players who exile themselves to the CHL for a better shot at being drafted and playing in the NHL.

Mikhail has had muted results since being sent back down to junior by the Canadiens, if only based on his production in the few games he's had (2 assists in 4 games, after maintaining a near-point a game pace last season).  In the first game between Team Russia and the OHL team, he seemed smooth and confident, but also didn't really do much to catch the eye.  He made a mistake or two and was shown on the bench receiving direction from the Russian coach.

The stated reason for his exclusion from the lineup was that all four Russian players who play in the OHL and played from Team Russia in Thursday's game had to play games over the weekend for their OHL team.  Fearing they would be fatigued, the Russian managers chose to go without their services, their roster of players who flew in from Russia having had the entire weekend off and being rested.

Michael McNiven has a good shot at at least an invite to Team Canada training camp.  He's not a pedigreed goalie, being undrafted and signed as a free agent by the Canadiens in the summer of 2015, but he's shown steady improvement since then and is having a strong start to his OHL season.  What also works in his favour is the fact that there are no returning goalies from last year's team, the road is wide open.

And the Sportsnet broadcast team of R.J. Broadhead and Sam Consentino are big fans also, judging by the call on a three-on-one break by the Russians early in the second period: "Stop by McNiven!  Marvelous, just marvelous, he does it again!"  For roughly the first half of the game, the story was how Michael McNiven had kept the Russians at bay and the game scoreless.

Will Bitten also drew our attention with his speed, getting a near breakaway on a penalty kill, showing speed and intensity on the forecheck.  He created a scrum and mini-brawl in the third with what I thought was a good strong bodycheck on the forecheck, and ended the game with an empty net goal.

Victor Mete got a lot of camera time and love from the announcers, being confident and mobile with the puck, getting powerplay time, and creating scoring opportunities.

So a good showing for Canadiens prospects in this 4-2 win.  Michael McNiven withstood a barrage early on, and very late in the third to earn a well-deserved win.  But for this worrywart, the major story is the absence of Mikhail Sergachev from the lineup.

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