The good, the bad, and the confusing of Alexey Lipanov’s performance at the Canada-Russia series

Lipanov’s first and only appearance at the Canada-Russia series was filled with ups-and-downs as Team OHL defeated Russia 3-1.

Last season, Alexey Lipanov arrived at Russia’s World Juniors selection camp looking to earn a spot with the team at the upcoming tournament. The season prior, Lipanov had captained the U-18 Russian squad to a bronze medal, so surely his chances were good to secure a spot this time around. After two pre-tournament wins against Denmark and Sweden, the Russian team announced its final cuts.

Lipanov was one of them.

It was undoubtedly disappointing to not be chosen to represent his country at his age group’s most elite international tournament, but Lipanov returned to the OHL hoping to prove Russia made a mistake by cutting him. He put up 30 points in 35 games with the Barrie Colts before being dealt to the Sudbury Wolves, but his offense dried up significantly after the trade.  Lipanov only had 9 points in 20 games, so despite being called up to Syracuse (where he had 3 points in 10 games) after the Wolves failed to make the playoffs, it wasn’t the breakthrough season the first-year OHLer had been looking for.

Fast forward to this season, Lipanov returned to the OHL looking for a redemption season. A preseason trade landed him with the Kitchener Rangers, where he put up 5 points in 12 games before leaving to play for Team Russia at the CIBC Canada-Russia series.

For those unfamiliar with the tournament, it is an annual exhibition tournament held between a select team of Russian junior players, and all-star teams representing the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL. Each Canadian league plays two games against the Russian team, who play in all six games. The tournament is used as a launching point for both Canadian and Russian hopefuls wanting to impress their respective teams in hopes of being invited to December selection camps for the World Juniors.

One Game, One Shot

Because Russia ends up playing six games (and travelling across Canada, to boot), they typically take a roster larger than 23 players. And although they tend to select players from Russian junior-B and junior-C leagues, it affords more opportunities for lesser-known players to make an impression.

Whatever the reason might have been, Lipanov was only chosen to play in one of the six games this time around. Either the Russian brass already knew that they would likely be taking him to Vancouver in December, or they figured they would have more opportunities to see Lipanov play more difficult opponents (since the OHL is more competitive than Russian junior leagues).

Regardless, Thursday’s game was Lipanov’s one and only chance to make an impact playing with his countrymen. He was given every opportunity to succeed, too. Playing on an all-OHL line with Kirill Maksimov (EDM, 2017) and Alexey Toropchenko (STL, 2017), Lipanov was in the starting lineup and took the game’s opening faceoff (which he won).

Unfortunately, that was pretty much as good as it got for Lipanov.

Game Analysis

I’m not saying that Lipanov had a bad game. But the OHL team dominated Russia for almost the entire game, and I’m not exaggerating. There were only a couple of times were Russia sustained lengthy offensive zone pressure. The OHL shut down Russia’s transition game, forced turnovers, and sent them scrambling back to their own zone to reset. Meanwhile, their own breakouts were seamless, passes tape-to-tape, and Russia looked lost for most of the game as they struggled to figure out how to break through.

In a game where a team is completely shut down in all areas of the ice, it is difficult for anyone on that team to look, well, good. Unfortunately, Lipanov was caught in that rut. At the beginning of the game, he was unafraid to challenge the OHL’s defense on the forecheck, but his line struggled to get into the offensive zone, meaning Lipanov spent most of game without the puck.

He wasn’t on the ice when Team OHL opened the scoring, nor was he on for the OHL’s second goal (which was a penalty shot). He was, however, on the ice for the third goal, and although it wasn’t really his fault, no Russian player on the ice looked good on this play. Now, the Russian defenders looked far worse, but Lipanov was gliding back through the neutral zone as Barrett Hayton went on the attack (dekeing out both defensemen and goalie Daniil Tarasov) and scored.

If you watch the beginning of the video, you’ll notice that Lipanov is the forward who tries to intercept the puck after Hayton passes it off. As the OHL begins its advance up the ice, Hayton takes off, but Lipanov doesn’t, opting instead to glide through the neutral zone. Had Lipanov followed Hayton more closely, he might not have received the pass as easily to take straight to the net.

Strategic Penalty Killer

If there was one bright spot to Russia’s game, it would be their penalty kill. They were absolutely formidable shorthanded. Russia had more opportunities to score shorthanded than they did at even strength (only had one powerplay). The Russian penalty killers did a great job of blocking passes, were aggressive in shadowing OHL players with the puck, and made it difficult for them to get set up in the offensive zone.

As Russia continued to take penalties (they took six), I noticed that head coach Valery Bragin used Lipanov in an interesting way shorthanded. Lipanov was never on the first shorthanded unit, and rarely on the second oen (if there was a change). Russia would clear the puck with about 30 to 45 seconds left in the kill and change, and this is where Lipanov would jump over the bench. I’m guessing Bragin wanted Lipanov to have the opportunity to kill penalties, and when the penalty expires and if Russia has possession, Lipanov would have enough gas still left in his tank to begin a rush into the offensive zone (allowing for the tired penalty killers to get off the ice and potentially lead to a scoring chance).

This didn’t work as well as it might have, but I noticed that this trend continued for all six Russian penalty kills. So whether Bragin’s plan was similiar to what I assumed, or there were just other forwards he trusted more, there was definite methodical intent to the way Lipanov was deployed shorthanded.

Final Thoughts

Lipanov finished the game with one shot on goal, a minus-1, and went 4/11 on faceoffs. The CHL didn’t track time on ice for skaters, but I did notice Lipanov’s shifts were fairly short — rarely was he ever on for longer than a minute (they were closer to 30-45 seconds long). Compared to his linemates, he was usually the first one off the ice. He was caught puck-watching in a couple of instances that led to prime OHL scoring chances.

As far as his transition game went, Lipanov was solid. He looked better when the play was moving north-south — when he was forced to sit in his own zone and defend, things looked a little shaky. However, Lipanov was all over the ice all game long. His smooth-skating carried him back and forth as every Russian breakout was stymied and sent reeling backwards. He would come back to support the defense in puck battles along the boards, and join the (short-lived) rush when Russia regained possession.

Lipanov’s one golden opportunity for a scoring chance was called off-side, which was a pretty good reflection of how the entire game fared for Russia. However, for a player known for his speed and offensive talent, Lipanov was miles away from his normal self tonight. Whether it was adjusting to new linemates, or rust from not playing for several days, Lipanov looked slow and tentative, especially when he had the puck. But he wasn’t the only Russian who did.

As December approaches, Lipanov will return to Kitchener and try to improve his performance leading up to World Juniors camps. If the Russian team really were truly unsure whether or not they would take him, I’m certain he would have played in more than one game (at least played in both OHL games). It likely means that last year’s late roster cut will be playing for Vancouver this holiday season, looking to add to his U-18 bronze medal. Russia has medalled in 7 of the last 8 World Juniors (last year they finished 5th). Would that result have improved had they kept Lipanov? It’s difficult to say.

With Andrei Svechnikov flourishing in the NHL, Klim Kostin is the only forward from last year’s team who will likely return. Despite Lipanov being a late cut last year, Russia will have to lean on him for leadership and his offensive capabilities. Barring an injury, or him having an absolutely awful season from here until Russian camp opens, this will be Lipanov’s chance to prove that he belongs with the best of his peers, and that Russia made a mistake in not taking him last year.