Tonight’s semi-final contest between the Russians and Team USA (20:00 at GM Place) will feature an intriguing matchup between the tournament’s top two individual forwards in Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin.
Prior to the 2006 IIHF World Junior Championship, the two centremen were billed the marquee players to watch, and both have lived up to their advance billing.
Kessel sits atop the tournament lead in points with one goal and nine assists. Malkin is second with four goals and four assists, having played one less game due to Russia’s bye to the semi-finals.
Standing 6-0 and weighing 190 pounds, Kessel has a wealth of offensive tools at his disposal. The dynamic American’s foot speed is second to none in the tournament, and his quick release has prompted comparisons to NHL superstars like Joe Sakic and Markus Naslund.
Kessel has long been touted as the next great American superstar, and the University of Minnesota product has enjoyed success at virtually every level.
While playing his minor hockey in Madison, Wisconsin, Kessel racked up incredible numbers. In 2001-2002, he amassed an astonishing 286 points in 86 games playing for the Madison Capitals Bantam AAA squad. The following year he put up 158 points, 113 of which were goals, playing for the Madison Capitals major team.
Following those successful campaigns, Kessel chose to forego playing for the Saginaw Spirit, the CHL team that owns his rights, and get involved with the USA National Team Development Program.
In his two years with the program, Kessel put up record numbers in nearly every offensive category, most notably his 52-goal explosion in the 2004-2005 season.
As a University of Minnesota Golden Gophers rookie, the projected #1 overall pick for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft has put up a respectable 22 points in 18 games.
On the international scene, the 18-year-old phenom has also been red-hot. He posted six points in seven games at last year’s IIHF World Junior Championship, where his team finished in fourth place.
Earlier this year, Kessel led the USA to the gold medal at the 2005 IIHF U18 World Championship in the Czech Republic, posting a tournament-best 16 points in six games. That earned him the IIHF Directorate Award as the tournament’s most outstanding forward.
On the Russian side of the equation, Evgeni Malkin has been heralded as the best player in the world not currently in the NHL. The 6-3, 186-pound centre will represent Russia at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Though drafted #2 overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2004, Malkin chose to forego making his NHL debut this season, suiting up instead for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League.
Malkin’s decision to stay in Russia has paid off in spades for his hometown club. The 19-year-old superstar is tearing up the Russian Super League with 27 points in 28 games this year.
Dave King, who coached Canada numerous times at the World Juniors and Olympics, is Malkin’s coach with Metallurg. He holds nothing back when describing Malkin’s skill-set.
“I think he is the best forward in Russia,” King said. “He has exceptional skills. You never have to talk to him about intensity. He practices at a terrific tempo.”
Malkin’s resume of international experience is quite lengthy, considering his tender age. He has already represented Russia in two U18 and two U20 tournaments (not counting this one). He totalled 10 points in six games while playing alongside Alexander Ovechkin at last year’s IIHF World Junior Championship.
Though he is modest and soft-spoken in dealing with the media, Malkin has mentioned that he models aspects of his game on Peter Forsberg, Sergei Fedorov and Joe Sakic.
At Russia’s pre-game skate Tuesday at GM Place, Malkin’s exceptional skill was on display. His soft hands allowed him to score at will during the morning’s shootout drills.
When his squad broke into two separate groups, Malkin’s otherworldly talents shone through. While positioned in the centre ice faceoff circle, he fired pucks at the red dasher (a six-centimetre-wide area located on the top of the boards) and his shots found the exact spot he was aiming for, over and over again.
The winner of tonight’s pivotal contest will go on to face the winner of today’s Canada-Finland semi-final in the clash for gold. But regardless of where the Russians and Americans finish this year, rest assured that both of these exceptional talents will be dazzling crowds around the world for years to come.