Goaltending has always been a strong point for the Russians/Soviets, dating back to their glory days in the 60’s and 70’s. Team Russia GM Vladislav Tretiak, a former goalie, has a good problem this time around, trying to decide between a handful of quality net-minders. The two that standout are San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov and Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov. There doesn’t seem to be a scenario where someone else would get the nod as Russia’s starter in Vancouver.
Nabokov has been brilliant for most of his career, and was robbed of the Vezina Trophy in the 2007/08 season when Martin Brodeur ended up winning it. He had a very good Olympics in 2006, posting a 1.34 GAA in seven games for Russia. Nabby’s always been clutch, and has a flare for the dramatic. But do the recent playoff struggles make Tretiak seriously consider making him the backup??
That wouldn’t be the only reason, because a red-hot Bryzgalov is neck-and-neck with ‘Nabby’. ‘Bryz’ doesn’t have the playoff experience that he has, but has better numbers (9-5, 1.68) compared to his San Jose counterpart (32-31, 2.23). He came up big when called upon with the Ducks in the two postseasons after the lockout. He’s also been better than ‘Nabby’ through the first two-plus months of this season, recording a 1.98 GAA for the surprising Coyotes.
Tretiak has a tough decision between Nabokov and Bryzgalov; he can’t go wrong with either one. Who would I start in a tournament situation like the Olympics?? Bryzgalov. But it would be smart for Russia to play both ‘tenders during pool play, then go with the hotter one in the single-elimination bracket.
Behind these two fine goaltenders are Nikolai Khabibulin and Semyon Varlamov, among others. Both are nursing injuries, but Khabibulin’s back injury appears to be serious, and there are whispers that he could miss more time than expected. That would open the door for the young Washington goalie to be the emergency backup in Vancouver.
Assuming Khabibulin will be healthy by February, though; who do you take between him and ‘Varly’?? I’d lean towards the young guy.
He’s flat out been better than Khabibulin this season. Varlamov boasts a gaudy 12-1-2 record with a 2.21 GAA. Yes, he’s just 21; but he’ll appreciate, and learn more from the experience than Khabibulin would. I also think that if Khabibulin wouldn’t be getting any playing time, he should focus on helping the Oilers return to the playoffs – even though going to the Olympics is a great honor. The ‘Bulin Wall has been there, done that… and it’s time for the Russians to flip the page.
In the end, it may not really matter who’s the starter, backup, or emergency goalie for Russia. They have a bevy of talent up front with the likes of Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, and Datsyuk. Their offense alone could get them far in the tournament. But either Nabokov or Bryzgalov will have to come through in the clutch in the medal games for Russia to get past powerhouse Canada or Sweden (or whoever else would be there in the end).
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