Why is this relevant to a hockey blog? Because all of the best mid-season international tournaments start today! The Spengler Cup kicks off in Davos, Switzerland while the World Junior Hockey Championship starts this afternoon in Montreal and Toronto, and it's a perfect day for a snow day to be stuck inside and watching some excellent international hockey!
Both of the Canadian teams will play today as the Canadian men will face-off against the KHL's Dinamo Minsk this afternoon while the Canadian juniors will square off against Russia in Toronto tonight in their opening game. In both cases, the Canadian teams will need to be up to the task as their opponents are skilled enough to win their entire respective tournament.
Dinamo Minsk enter the Spengler Cup in fifth-place in the Western Conference in the KHL, just two points behind Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and two points ahead of Dynamo Moscow. Canadian Craig Woodcroft coaches the Belorussian team, and they come into the tournament having won five straight games since December 6. They're the sixth-highest scoring team in the KHL with 117 goals-for, but are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to goals-against with 106 to date. They're the third-most penalized team in the KHL with 664 PIMs, but they still have a penalty-killing efficiency of 34 goals on 182 attempts-against for 81.3% and they've added four shorthanded goals. On the other side, Minsk is deadly with the power-play as they sit fourth in efficiency with 42 goals on 179 attempts for 23.5%, but have also given up four shorthanded goals. In short, Dinamo Minsk should be a solid test for the Canadian Spengler Cup entry in their opening game.
Minsk has a netminder that most NHL fans will recognize in Ben Scrivens. The former Leaf, King, Canadien, and Oiler has moved to the Belorussian club and put together a 21-14-4 record on the strength of a 2.22 GAA, .919 save percentage, and seven shutouts. Those seven shutouts? They lead the KHL, and Scrivens recorded two of them in the final three games Minsk played before making their way to Davos.
Another name that will stand out on the roster is Marc-Andre Gragnani. The former Sabres, Canucks, and Devils defenceman has a goal and 23 assists in 38 games this season and leads Minsk's defenders in scoring. Minsk also employs former Canucks defenceman Lukas Krajicek, but he's been injured for a portion of the season and has only played in 18 games where he recorded just four helpers.
Up front, there's a familiar name for Blackhawks, Senators, Coyotes, Penguins, and Oilers fans as Rob Klinkhammer suits up for Minsk. The grinding forward may have found a home in Belarus as he's played in 37 games and recorded 16 goals and 13 assists thus far! That's just six goals behind his career NHL total!
The other name that will resonate with NHL fans is former Canadiens sniper Sergei Kostitsyn. Kostitsyn's production has dropped off in the KHL, but he's still producing in 30 games with four goals and 17 assists over that time. He'll turn thirty next March so it's tough to say he's past his prime, but Kostitsyn has been averaging around 30 points per season since 2012-13. They need him if they want to make a run deep into the Gagarin Cup Playoffs.
As we switch our focus from Minsk to the Russian team in Toronto tonight, it should be noted that the vats majority of the Russian squad is 19 years of age, so they'll come in as one of the oldest teams at the World Junior Championship this year. That experience may help the team, but they're still going to have to play well to get past the Canadians and Americans in their pool.
One player the Canadians will need to get to will be goaltender Ilya Samsonov. Samsonov plays with the KHL's Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and he's putting up some insane numbers as he's 12-1-3 with a 2.06 GAA, a .936 save percentage, and one shutout. Samsonov stands at 6'3" as well as being athletically-gifted, so beating the Russian goaltender will be a challenge due to his ability and size. Canada will have to get him moving to open him up, so lots of shots and screens will go a long way in getting Samsonov off his game.
Before any hockey can be watched by me, however, I need to suit up and dig out from Mother Nature's gift of a foot of snow. There is a lot of snow surrounding HBIC Headquarters, so this might be more than an hour or two. If you don't hear from me in a few days, just assume that the snow got the better of me and I'm now living happily in a snow fort in my backyard.
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!