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Team Russia looks strong heading into Super Series

Russian star Nail Yakupov

Team Russia had never been a real competitor at the Subway Super Series before 2010. It wasn't until they finally won the series prior to winning the world junior tournament in Buffalo that they started sending better teams.

Last season they split the series with the CHL teams 3-3 but the ultimate win went to the hosts much to confusion of the Russians. Still, they went on to the world junior final, where they lost to Sweden.

This season, Valeri Bragin, who had been Team Russia's head coach for two years, landed a job working for CSKA. It's tough to apply for a job when your predecessor has made it to the final game of the U-20 championship three times in three years winning two gold medals.

Regardless of the challenge, Mikhail Varnakov was up for it.

Varnakov faced Canada four times in his first tournament with the Russians in August. Team Russia split the series with two regulation wins, though they eventually lost in overtime as Ryan Strome beat Andrei Vasilevski.

A few weeks later Russia took part in a four-nations U-20 tournament in Czech Republic and finished dead last after losing to Sweden (3-2 OT), Finland (3-5) and host Czech Republic (3-4). Russia was, however, missing a few key players including offensive star Nail Yakupov.

Yakupov, the first-overall pick of the Edmonton Oilers, will be playing in the Super Series which begins tonight in Blainville-Boisbriand, Que. And he's coming in hot. He's scored 10 goals and has 14 points in13 KHL games. He's currently on a four-game point streak during which time he has five goals and two assists. Here is some of his handiwork with the KHL's Neftekhimik:

Yakupov isn't the only one on Team Russia who plays in the KHL.

One of the other players to look out for is 18-year-old defenceman Andrei Mironov of Dynamo Moscow. The reigning KHL champions aren't known for giving young players much ice time, but Mironov still averages 11:53 minutes a game. Surprisingly, he's been very responsible defensively and very physical, too. He's no stranger to the KHL's Top-10 hits of the week and recently even topped it with a hip-check on Nikolai Lemtyugov.

Other KHL defencemen of note who will be making the trip for Russia are Kirill Dyakov (Yugra) and Nikita Nesterov (Traktor). One other notable blueliner is Mikhail Naumenkov who plays for THK in the VHL (the AHL equivalent of the KHL). CHL's Nikita Zadorov and Artem Sergeev will also be joining the team for a few games in the series.

Russia's greatest assets by far will be their offence and goaltending. There are two world-class netminders Varnakov will have to choose from at the world junior championship in Ufa, Russia this year — Andrei Vasilevski (drafted 19th overall by Tampa Bay Lightning) and Andrei Makarov (signed as a free agent by Buffalo Sabres).

Makarov will join Team Russia when they head to B.C. for the final two games of the series, so Vasilevski is likely to play the majority of games. Igor Ustinski is likely to get a start in at least one game as the travel and fatigue of four games in seven days will be a huge factor for the Russians.

Ustinski plays in the MHL, the Russian major junior league, for Stalnye Lisy. In 26 games this season he has 2.63 GAA and 91.6 save percentage.

Up front, the Russians have a number of players to help Yakupov.

Maxim Shalunov had an off season offensively last year but it looks like he's back on track as he played well at the Super Series in August and led Team Russia in scoring at the  tournament in the Czech Republic.

Valeri Nichushkin is one of the hottest prospects for the upcoming NHL draft. At 6-foot-3 and 176-pounds this native of Chelyabinsk already has eight goals and 10 points in 15 games in the VHL. That's his rookie season in pro hockey too. It will be very interesting to see how well he can keep up the other guys on the Team Russia during the Subway Super Series.

Alex Khokhlachev got to a rough start in pro hockey. The former Windsor Spitfires forward has one goal and two points for Spartak Moscow this season but, truth be told, his team is dealing with a lot of issues right now as they're on the very bottom of the Western Conference in the KHL. Playing among his peers should spark him.

Evgeni Mozer made a name for himself this season having made the jump from the MHL to the KHL's Avangard. His transition to a pro game went so smooth he was praised by both Avangard head coach Petri Matikainen and Varnakov. While he may be not the biggest star on the team, he's a very good all-around forward.

Vladimir Tkachev played on the fourth line at the Canada-Russia challenge in August but may get a better ice time this time around as he currently tops the MHL in goal-scoring with 17. He's a very skilled forward who isn't afraid to sacrifice a simple play to try a nice deke.

Yaroslav Kosov and Damir Zhafyarov also play full-time in the KHL and have put up good numbers. Kosov also played at the last world juniors and was drafted by the Florida Panthers two years ago. Zhafyarov has four goals and 10 points in 24 games this season.

Andrei Sigarev spent last season in the VHL with Dizel and scored 12 points in 15 playoff games. After scoring seven goals and 14 points in just 10 games this season he was signed by SKA St. Petersburg but he hasn't really played for them so far. It's hard to crack SKA's line-up with so many stars, although Sigarev has managed to get two KHL games under his belt.

As for some help from the CHL, there's plenty for Russia's offence. Mikhail Grigorenko, who's tearing the QMJHL apart this season, will be joining his compatriots in Quebec along with Anton Zlobin. Zlobin scored both goals for Shawinigan Cataractes at the  Memorial Cup final, including the game-winner in OT. One other interesting name to look for during the first two games in Quebec is Valentin Zykov who scored 20 points (11+9) in 17 games for Baie-Comeau Drakkar in his rookie season overseas.

In the OHL, another Oilers pick, Daniil Zharkov, will join the Russians in Guelph for Game 3 of the series. He had a good run with the Belleville Bulls last season and performed well at the U18 World Championship. He will make his debut on U20 international level.

Coach Varnakov has noted publicly that he has only brought players who he can count on for Ufa. He has, however, mentioned that the final roster for the tournament will likely include defenceman Vsevolod Sorokin, forward Daniil Romantsev and goalie Denis Perevozchikov.

After tonight's game in Blainville-Boisbriand, the series moves to Val d'Or on Wednesday and Guelph, Ont., on Thursday before hitting Sarnia and the Western Hockey League. All games will be broadcast live on Sportsnet.

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