Russian defenceman Rinat Valiev has played three games at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship with a fraction of the fanfare given to his fellow Maple Leafs draft pick, Sweden’s William Nylander.
But the blueliner didn’t allow the adulation for Nylander – that included a video highlight package on the Air Canada Centre scoreboard – to distract him from his assignments in last night’s preliminary round matchup between the two squads.
“I didn’t’ really hear (the tribute). I was trying to focus on the game because we were losing,” Valiev said after Russia dropped a 3-2 nail-biter to the Swedes. “Nylander is a good player. Before the game our coach told us to play hard against him.”
Russia bench boss Valeri Bragin paid the 18-year-old Valiev the ultimate vote of confidence by placing the rearguard on the ice with eight seconds remaining in the third period, desperate to tie the game with the goaltender on the bench.
On the ensuing faceoff won by Russia, Valiev received the puck on the point, then took a slap-pass that teammate Vlad Bryuvkin missed converting for the equalizer.
“I didn’t have much time and it was a fake shot – a back-door pass. Some guys said ‘shoot!’ – there wasn’t a lot of time,” Valiev recalled as Russia dropped its first game of the tournament while still retaining its second-place ranking in Group B.
Throughout the game Valiev, Toronto’s third choice, 68th overall at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, was smart with the puck while also playing positionally sound. After taking a minor penalty for interference in each of Russia’s first two games – both victories – Valiev managed to stay out of the penalty box versus Sweden.
With one game remaining before the knockout stage, a New Year’s Eve tilt against the Czech Republic, the defenceman who plays for Kootenay of the Western Hockey League says he is finding his stride.
“I’m feeling good. Maybe it was a slow start for me, but we’re feeling better every game,” Valiev said.
On the opposing side of the ice, Nylander finished the game with two assists. Many of his shifts saw him matched up against his Russian counterpart, particularly in the first period. Nylander had little to offer in terms of an evaluation of his Leafs training camp teammate.
“It’s hard to say when you’re playing in the game. You’re not really watching the other players so much,” Nylander said. “But I know (Valiev) pretty well, we’re the same age; we talk a little bit.”
While adversaries on the ice, both players share the common long-term objective; that is to play under the rafters of the Air Canada Centre wearing a maple leaf.
“It means a lot to me,” Valiev said. “I didn’t play here at the beginning of the year, but it’s a huge dream. There are a lot of fans and I’m so excited to play here.”
(photo credit: HockeysFuture.com)
Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @Rob_DelMundo