Maxim Shalunov scored a lot of goals in his junior career. Across the past two seasons, he scored 52 goals and had 96 points in 87 games for Belye Medvedi of the MHL — Russia's major junior hockey league.
However, his biggest goal so far is probably the one he scored on Wednesday night in Guelph, Ont., in Game 3 of the Subway Super Series. It came with 6:55 to play and proved to be the game-winning goal. It was the first win for Russians against Team OHL in the history of the tournament.
How did he get it in?
"I went for a five-hole, like I was taught to," says Shalunov, a 19-year-old whom the Chicago Blackhawks drafted in the fourth round in 2011.
Wait, they teach you how to aim for five-hole these days?
"No," explains Salunov with a chuckle. "It's something I learned. When you coming down on the left wing it's better to shoot under goalie's support leg. It's your best bet. If you're going to try to go top-shelf you can miss the net, or you can hit the round part of the net and cause a counter-attack."
Last thing any player wants to do is to waste a scoring opportunity. Although, when you put yourself in Shalunov's shoes, you'd think it would make more sense to pass it to Valeri Nichushkin, who was calling for the puck on the far post.
"Actually, I was going to pass it to Valeri," agrees the 6-foot-3, 203-pounder. "However, then I noticed that the defenceman was right between us. I had a chance to shoot it. Why pass it then? Let's pretend it wouldn't have gone in. There would be a rebound then, and Valeri would be right there to put it in. He was in right position for a rebound. He was ready for it. So if I didn't score, he would have."
Protecting lead vs. Team OHL a test of fortitude
When you score two goals in a 24-second span to take a late lead, your biggest enemy is yourself. It's not easy to stay focused and keep your composure when hit such an emotional bump. It's coach's responsibility to not let his players get ahead of themselves.
"[Russian coach Mikhail] Varnakov didn't really say anything to us on the bench. All he said was 'Keep playing and stick to the game plan'. We played according to the game plan all game long,' says Shalunov about his coach's tactics. "I mean, we did make mistakes. Take the goal that we allowed, for example. That was a mistake. Aside from that, I'd say we played exactly the way our coach wanted us to play."
Game 3 of the series historically has been the toughest one for Russian teams. Not only are they playing their third game in four nights, but they are also dealing with travelling across provinces and acclimatization issues. That almost inevitably led to a complete breakdown of Russians in the third period. Not this time, though.
"There's always some energy left in you. You just have to know how to use it. That's what Varnakov tells us — you have to know how to find energy in you. Your head has to tell your legs to keep on running and your hands keep on working," says Shalunov.
It seems like the Chelyabinsk native always has his energy tank filled up. Two years ago he was more of a finesse player, who'd shy away from the physical game, but now he also knows how to crush people.
"I try to play as physical as I can," admits Shalunov. "I have the size, may as well use it, right? I like it. Besides, I get to practice on Canadians — that's the best thing ever."
Shalunov was on Team Russia last year at the Subway Super Series when they almost won Game 3 in Ottawa.
"Last year we were up 6-4 early in the third period in Game 3. In the end we lost 10-7. Back then we also thought that we were going to make history. Yeah, right," he remembers with a smile. "Now we have and it's a great feeling."
Russia was heavy criticized by media back home for losing Game 2 of the series in Val d'Or. You have to wonder if that helped spark the team.
"To be honest, I try not to read negative stuff. I try to forget about a loss and get ready for a new game. That was easy this time as we had to play the next day. Why would you want to read bad things about yourself?" says Shalunov. "I mean, I don't really care what people write about me. Everyone has his own opinion. Some folks didn't like the way we played against the Quebec 'kids' as they called them. They should try to play against these 'kids' themselves. These 'kids' are all like 6-feet-6."
It's clear nobody would write bad stuff about Team Russia after the historic win in Guelph. Would Shalunov be interested in reading good stuff about himself?
"Sure. We have three days-off. I have time to kill," he says with a laugh.
Chances are he won't be disappointed.