The Subway Super Series will come down to this final game when Morgan Rielly’s Team WHL squad will look to neutralize Nail Yakupov and the high-flying Russians.
The team representing the Western Hockey League captured Game 5 of the series in Vancouver on Wednesday in a shootout after a scoreless draw. It now gives the Canadian Hockey League the series lead with eight points to the Russians’ seven. A regulation win for either side would give that team the series on Thursday.
Watch Game 6 of the Subway Super Series tonight on Sportsnet ONE at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT.
“I think every player loves to play the big game and if there’s something riding on the game, they’re going to do their absolute best to lay their best effort on the table,” Team WHL head coach Don Nachbaur said. “I wouldn’t expect us to think we won one game and we’re satisfied with that.”
Laurent Brossoit did his best to stake his claim towards making the world junior squad with a 30-save shutout win. He also stopped all three shots in the shootout, including one from Yakupov.
Rielly and a star-studded group of defencemen kept Yakupov from gaining traction offensively.
“Without crediting anybody, I thought our entire back-end that went out there against him did a fantastic job,” Nachbaur said. “Whether it was off the walls, whether it was on the goal-line, whether it was the speed on the rush, we did a really good job on him.”
Rielly is one of three returning defencemen from Wednesday’s game. The Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect did just as Nachbaur asked by playing a sound defensive game while also dazzling with some nice rushes offensively.
“Morgan’s a talented kid offensively,” his coach said. “I thought he was a real rock of Gibraltar back there as far as defending. We need that and we talked about jumping into the rush versus leading the rush and I thought there were times when he was real good with the puck.”
Yakupov remains at two goals and two assists in the series through five games now. The target on his back was large, and Team WHL never took a shift off when the Russian captain was on the ice. One of his more notable shifts came early in the game when Yakupov was sandwiched along the wall by Mark McNeill and Adam Lowry.
Curtis Lazar had a big moment late in the third period when he directed a puck downward towards the goal that actual led to a goal for Team WHL. The referees judged Lazar used a high stick and disallowed the goal.
Lazar is one of potentially eight returning forwards for this game, depending on the status of Travis Ewanyk who left the game with an injury early in the second period on Wednesday.
Valeri Nichushkin, meanwhile, is still looking for his first point of the series, but appears much more confident with the puck on his stick. Nichushkin made a nice twisting backhand on a one-on-one rush in the second period that was denied by Brossoit. He’s got just one game left to leave an impression on the scouts monitoring his progress in this series.
Nachbaur wouldn’t confirm his starter when asked late Wednesday night. Brossoit was brilliant in Game 5 and is a much more realistic candidate for the world junior team than Eric Comrie, whose future is so bright.
“I’m pretty confident that the kids are going to play hard (Thursday) regardless of who’s in the net,” Nachbaur said.
The Russians went with Andrey Makarov on Wednesday and he looked every bit as good as Brossoit in defending the visiting team’s goal. Makarov and Andrei Vasilevski shared the crease for the Russians in last year’s world junior tournament and likely will do so again this year.
Nachbaur recognized how well the Saskatoon Blades’ goaltender played for the Russians on Wednesday, but is mindful a different approach could ignite his team’s offence.
“If the goalies are seeing the puck, they’re going to make the saves,” he said. “We have to get traffic and we have to find ways to manufacture goals … (Makarov) made some good glove saves. I think our shot selection has to change from what we did (on Wednesday).”
Lowry will assume the captaincy from Ryan Murray for this game. It’s a homecoming of sorts for the Winnipeg Jets prospect, who will play in front of his father, Dave’s, home junior team fans. His father will also be behind the bench as an assistant coach for Team WHL.
Lowry is one of the players who could be relied upon to create traffic in front of the Russian net. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds, he’s a tough player to move and had been creating a log jam in front late in Game 5.
Mikhail Naumenkov is sending a message with his play on the Russian blue-line. Naumenkov, who played in last year’s tournament, should be one of his country’s top defenders and a physical force. He delivered the hit that took Ewanyk out of Wednesday’s game.
It’s a one-game, winner-take-all scenario now. A regulation win caps the series for either team while a shootout win for Team WHL would also win it for the CHL. With just one point separating the two teams, a shootout win for the Russians would send the series to another shootout to determine the overall winner.
The WHL will be representing their league, country, and the other two leagues who participated in the series. Pride should transcend all borders.
“We know what’s at stake and it’s just pressure, but at the end of the day, we’re playing in our home rink, in front of our crowd and our country and we know that we’ve got to come out (strong),” Nachbaur said. “The Russians are proud people. That team’s proud and it will be a great hockey game. I wouldn’t expect it to be any different than (on Wednesday).”