The Russians are pretty clearly one of the top teams in their group. While Team Denmark surprised them by taking them to a shootout, they completely blew out Team Switzerland. Rushan Rafikov, the lone Flames prospect at this year's World Juniors and one of Russia's leaders - he wears an "A" - needed to get his feet under him for the first game, but against the Swiss, he was excellent.
The Swedes are not the Danes nor the Swiss, though. Russia vs. Sweden was the match of Group B, and they gave us quite a show with a thrilling, one-goal game. Rafikov was once again one of Russia's starters and leaders on the ice, but couldn't do quite enough to bring his team to victory.
One area Rafikov has been consistent in so far this round robin is taking penalties. He took a penalty against the Danes, which led to a powerplay goal against. He took a penalty against the Swiss, giving them a short five-on-three, but his teammates bailed him out. Against the Swedes, he got caught out there along with the force that is eighth overall pick William Nylander. The Swedes, and Nylander in particular, completely dominated the shift, flustering the Russians and ultimately forcing Rafikov into hooking Nylander down. The Swedes opened the game's scoring with this powerplay.
An offensive defenceman, Rafikov frequently jumped up into the play. One such instance came in the second, when he joined all three Russian forwards on the rush. He was the uncovered trailer, in perfect position for a drop pass and good shot, but went unnoticed by his teammates, and Swedish goalie Linus Soderstrom had no problems with the shot he did face.
It is worth noting, however, that Russia's first goal came off a similar play - just without Rafikov on the ice. Ziat Paigin was the trailing defenceman in the slot when he received the puck and took a booming shot. The result was a rebound Soderstrom couldn't control, and Vyacheslav Leshenko potted it to tie the game.
Despite not recording any shots on net, Rafikov did put up an assist in the game. He started the drive on Russia's second goal, when he took the puck after a teammate forced the turnover. Rafikov passed the puck up from within his own zone. It bounced off the boards in the neutral zone to Pavel Buchnevich, who dished it off to Leshenko. Rafikov picked up the secondary assist as Russia took the 2-1 lead.
While the defenceman clearly has some good offensive instincts, he's still a defenceman, and Rafikov could have been better on that end of the game. He doesn't take unnecessary risks, and tends to hang back when he doesn't see a chance for an odd-man rush he can jump into. He does play a bit on the penalty kill, but once again, was not a part of the first unit; he did initiate the clearing of the puck in some of his limited time, though, but nearly turned it over in the same play. Rafikov was also nearly victimized by a bad bounce that resulted in a turnover and near-Swedish goal, but was spared when none of the Swedes could actually poke the puck home.
He was also victimized on the game-winning goal, Sweden's lone even strength goal of the game. Rafikov can't be faulted too hard for this one, as Sweden's top line of Nylander, Oskar Lindblom, and Axel Holmstrom were an absolute force. Rafikov was caught at the blue line when the Swedes were able to get around him and bring the puck in. He ended up near the front of his net while some ridiculous passing plays occurred, and just got completely twisted around, facing Lindblom and his back to a wide-open Holmstrom when Lindblom passed to Holmstrom for the game winner. It all went by very, very fast, resulting in some panic and scrambly play on the Russians' part, including Rafikov. It was an insane play, though, so he shouldn't be faulted too much; still, that's something for him to work on.
One other thing to note in regards to Rafikov's game was his physicality. The Russians nearly took the lead in the third, but an insane Soderstrom save kept the game tied at two. That didn't stop a scrum from breaking out, though. Rafikov wasn't anywhere near the Swedish net when it broke out, and he came flying in, grabbing hold of Anton Karlsson. The two had quite the tussle, Rafikov lost his helmet, and both were sent to the penalty box with matching roughing penalties.
Rafikov was also out there towards the end of the game, as the Russians were desperate to tie the game back up. During his shift, the Russians weren't able to get the puck out of their zone, but he was very physical in his defence, including a pretty big hit, and helped prevent the Swedes from adding to their lead. He was not on the ice for the game's final faceoff, when the Russians had goalie Ilya Sorokin pulled and six attackers, and Russia fell 3-2 to Sweden in an absolute thriller.
The Swedes are probably the toughest opponent the Russians will face in the group stage, and both teams certainly put on a show. As for Rafikov, he had a few good plays, and I noticed at least three separate instances he was the perfect guy to pass to but his teammates failed to notice him - including that second period rush I noted above - but got absolutely burned on the game-winning goal. It's great to see he's got a mean streak to him as well, but it would also be nice to see him go a game without any penalties committed.
Rafikov and the rest of the Russians have the chance to claim second in their group when they face the Czechs for their final round robin game on Dec. 31, once again at 3 p.m. MT.