My take on the 1979 Challenge Cup

By VMBM · Jul 2, 2020 · Updated Jul 3, 2020
Rating:
5/5,
  1. VMBM
    Hello, fellow hockey geeks!

    The 1979 Challenge Cup between the NHL All-Stars (=the best of Canada plus three Swedes) and the Soviet National Team is one of my favorite cold war era hockey series ever. For starters, look at the rosters; Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Bobby Clarke, Gilbert Perreault, Bryan Trottier, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden… Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov, Vladimir Petrov, Sergei Makarov, Helmut Balderis, Valeri Vasiliev, Vladislav Tretiak etc. For example, the 1972 Summit Series can’t be compared to it in terms of pure star power. I know that the way the series was put together can be criticized (more about that in my final analysis), but its superstar participants, the (relatively) fast-paced hockey, many highlight moments and the dramatic outcome make it a thrilling viewing.

    I will go through every one of the three games that were played; there are the lineups for both teams, concise reviews of each game, and a little closer look on the Soviet forward lines and their play. I’ll also try to say at least something about their defense/goaltending too, as well as about Team NHL’s tops (and flops). For the sake of historical continuity, I decided to concentrate on the Soviet team, since Team NHL was just assembled for this series (though it had many players who played e.g. in the 1976 Canada Cup and would play in the 1981 Canada Cup), whereas the Soviet National Team played regularly throughout the years; thus their play and development is a little more meaningful to look deeper in my opinion.

    I have put the links to the goals and many other highlights in the series, since luckily all the full games are available on YouTube; I have underlined the key words that you can click to if you want to view a certain play or plays (and not just take my word for it!). If there are two or more highlight moments in the same shift or otherwise very close to each other, usually I haven’t bothered to make separate links. The clips are usually in chronological order, but sometimes, when wanting to point out some recurring pattern in the play etc, I might deviate from that a bit.

    Lastly, I do a little final analysis on the series, where I try to place the Challenge Cup in a historical context, estimate its meaning and ‘value’, especially concerning Soviet hockey and its development. For this, I have also had a little help from Ken Dryden’s and Viktor Tikhonov’s books in which they analyze the series and make interesting observations. Your opinions and critique are most welcome too! I will probably edit and revise the text somewhat myself too during the upcoming days, since this turned out to be a heavier project than I thought (also having suffered from some truly frustrating technical problems!), and I haven’t had the energy to do any great quality control yet. So, here we go…

    Game 1

    USSR

    Kharlamov-Petrov-Mikhailov
    Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis
    A. Golikov-V.Golikov-Makarov
    Skvortsov-Kovin-Varnakov

    Starikov-Tsygankov
    Fedorov-Vasiliev
    Pervukhin-Bilyaletdinov

    Tretiak

    Head coach: Viktor Tikhonov

    NHL

    Sittler-Perreault-McDonald
    Gainey-Clarke-Barber
    Shutt-Dionne-Lafleur
    Gillies-Trottier-Bossy
    Nilsson, Hedberg

    Robinson-Salming
    Beck-Savard

    Dryden

    Head coach: Scotty Bowman

    The game

    The NHL All-Stars start the game with the forward line of Steve Shutt, Bobby Clarke and Guy Lafleur (Robinson and Salming on defense), which apparently had been chosen by North American hockey fans, which in itself feels a bit of a gimmick. Still, they answer to the call, and Lafleur scores at the 16th second, after being set up by Clarke; somehow there are three Soviets trying to check Clarke and none watching Lafleur who faces Tretiak 1-on-1, fakes and puts the puck in the net as he falls. It almost seems like the Soviets never quite recover from this nightmarish beginning, and already in the next shift, Sittler almost gets a great chance, and Zhluktov has to offend him. So, it is Team NHL’s first power play. However, here the USSR show their ‘secret weapon’ for the series, namely the terrific penalty killing of the Golikov brothers and the defensemen Pervukhin and Bilyaletdinov (all from Dinamo Moscow). The NHL All-Stars don’t really get anything going, as the Soviets forecheck very aggressively and take away passing lanes effectively. Not too long after that, though, the NHL gets another PP opportunity when Petrov is sent to the penalty box, and this time they are much more successful when it is Zhluktov and Balderis who are killing the penalty for the USSR. After a couple of good scoring chances, Gilbert Perreault, starting behind his own net, makes a great rush and feeds Mike Bossy, who scores. Fairly soon after that, Bill Barber ‘scores’ after a faceoff, but the goal is disallowed, as the referee thinks that Barber kicked it in. Then, the Soviets get their first PP in the game, and not much of note happens, but just as Lanny McDonald gets out of the box, the Soviets have their first good chance when Vladimir Golikov gets a shot on Dryden. Moments later, Clark Gillies is penalized for charging, and the Soviets' top line go to work, and Boris Mikhailov bangs in a rebound from the air. However, the NHL All-Stars soon get their 3rd PP chance when the Shutt-Dionne-Lafleur line give the Soviets a lot of trouble. Still, with the Golikovs doing another excellent job on the PK, Team NHL don't get anything going. They do get the last word of the period, though; after some pressure by the USSR, Gainey makes a great individual effort, as he goes around Starikov and beats Tretiak from the right side, and it is 3 to 1. Nothing much happens in the first period after that; all in all, it was quite a dream start for Team NHL.

    In the first shift of the 2nd period, after some good defensive work by Petrov (and too eager offense by Salming), Mikhailov and Kharlamov get a 2-on-1, and Kharlamov has a great chance to score but unfortunately is just unable to get any shot away. Early in the period, the Golikov-Golikov-Makarov line also put great pressure against Dionne’s line, with both Aleksandr Golikov and Makarov getting shots on the net. Also, in the following shift, the Torpedo Gorky line of Skvortsov, Kovin and Varnakov mostly dominate against the NY Islanders’ line, so things are looking more promising for the Soviets. They are unable to score, however, and their energy and will seem to wane after Trio Grande strikes, and Clarke Gillies, displaying his physical strength on the boards already before the goal, beats Tretiak. The NHL All-Stars pretty much have the play under control for the rest of the period, dominating in the neutral zone and their own blue line. They also get the only PP chance of the period, but are once again stymied by the brilliant penalty-killing of the Golikovs and Pervuhkin and Bilyaletdinov. In the latter part of the period, Team USSR’s scoring chances are almost non-existent, with only Skvortsov’s point blank shot truly noteworthy. On the other hand, the NHL get a few excellent possibilities to extend their lead, like the one by Shutt, surprising the Soviet defense by his speed, one by Trottier, set up by Bossy, and lastly one close call by the Gainey-Clarke-Barber line who also do an excellent defensive job throughout the game against the Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line. After two periods, the NHL All-Stars seem to have the game in the bag.

    In the 3rd period, the play is generally more even, maybe because the NHL is mostly protecting their lead and/or they are getting more tired - after all, they play with only two defensive pairs - and/or the Soviets are lifting their level of play somewhat. Still, the Soviet players have troubles penetrating NHL’s ‘four man wall’ at the blue line, as demonstrated in this shift where Kapustin is twice stopped before he is able to make any play (plus a good scoring chance by the NHL between), as well as in another shift where Kharlamov has also two unsuccessful rushes. Still, the USSR manage to score the only goal of the period, as rather conveniently the arguably best Soviet line in the game, Golikov-Golikov-Makarov, score (V. Golikov). The unit also offer some good pressure right after the goal. Clarke Gillies continues to play well in the period; for example, here he checks Makarov in the neutral zone, and gets a shot at the net. However, along with the Soviets scoring the lone goal, maybe the story of the period is Kharlamov’s injury (charley horse) around the midway. He is apparently hit by Larry Robinson off-camera, so it is undoubtedly an illegal check, since neither man has the puck; for the rest of the game, Sergei Makarov, double-shifted, plays with Petrov and Mikhailov. Team USSR’s second line is still being stymied by Gainey et al in the 3rd period; although here, for example, you can see some great moves by Balderis, it leads to nowhere, and moments later Gillies, combining with Barber on this play, has a chance in front of the net. The Golikovs, as usual, offer most of the Soviet pressure in the latter part of the period, including Vladimir’s shot from the slot. The NHL also has some good chances; first, it is Lafleur after being set up by Dionne, and then Sittler, after Clarke’s playmaking effort, is alone with Tretiak but can’t quite get a shot away. During the closing moments, the Soviets’ top line offer some good pressure with some pretty passing, but it’s obviously far too little, too late. Overall, this was a well-deserved win for the NHL, and while it was a fairly flat effort by the Soviets, it shouldn’t take away from the excellent performance by the NHL All-Stars.

    A closer look at the Soviet performance plus Team NHL in game 1
    The play of the top line was certainly disappointing; it’s not like they were dominated, but outside Mikhailov’s PP goal and Kharlamov’s close call in the 2nd period, it was mostly could-have-been-a-good-scoring-chance at best, like Mikhailov nearly getting a breakaway in the 2nd period (interestingly, they tried to get Mikhailov home free many times during the series, never quite succeeding). Having said this, their playing looked a little perkier and more aggressive in the last shift that Kharlamov played, so it is a shame that he was injured, since I’m sure his play would have improved as the series went on – Petrov and Mikhailov (and the rest) certainly did.

    If the top line was a little flat, then the highly touted Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line was downright lousy. To be fair, they usually faced NHL’s top defensive line in the game/series, Gainey-Clarke-Barber, but they were not playing well even when facing other line combinations. I guess I have to first and foremost single out Balderis, since at least based on the talks of the Canadian broadcasting team, he was considered the Soviet equivalent of Guy Lafleur; however, basically the only thing you see from him in the game is one shot on goal, and occasionally some good moves, stickhandling and speed like here which leads to nowhere. Things could get only better…

    On the positive side, Aleksandr Golikov, Vladimir Golikov and Sergei Makarov formed Team USSR’s strongest line in the game, at even strength and especially when the penalty-killing of the Golikov brothers is taken into consideration. I’m not quite sure how often this PK unit was used in other big tournaments around this time (though based on one available game in the 1979 World Championship, they were the main unit there too), but I’m fairly confident that it was never quite to this extent. In any case, they did a brilliant job. Vladimir got also the official recognition, as he was chosen as the Soviet MVP of the game, well-deserved.

    The Skvortsov-Kovin-Varnakov line played also well, if not exactly spectacularly. They scored no goals, but the least one can say is that they played at least closer to their potential than either the top or second line. But even they would improve later on.

    Of the Soviet defensemen, it could be said that the non-CSKA players – more precisely, the Dinamo Moscow trio of Pervukhin, Bilyaletdinov and Vasiliev – impressed the most, but it was not a great night for either Soviet pointmen or the Soviet defensive play in general; simply too many point blank chances for the NHL. As for Tretiak, he looked mediocre during the first half of the game (especially badly out of position on the Bossy goal), but actually was steady and made some big saves in the latter. However, Dick Irvin and others were already not impressed with him after the first period, and their remarks concerning Tretiak’s form would turn out to be somewhat prophetic. One more thing; where did Gennadiy Tsygankov disappear during the 2nd period of the game? Perhaps he got injured; namely, I don’t think he was that lousy in comparison with other Soviet defensemen that it would have explained his exit. Whatever the case, he did not get any ice-time in the following games, and was replaced by Sergei Babinov.

    It is hard to single out individual Team NHL players, as they played really well as a team, but Guy Lafleur was named the Team MVP of the game, and it is hard to argue against that; he was fast, flashy and dangerous throughout the game. The NY Islanders line had a very good game too, and I would especially like to mention Clarke Gillies; even though his skating and stickhandling looked as rough as ever, he played with passion and grit and was at least as essential as his linemates. Gilbert Perreault was arguably responsible for the greatest individual effort in the game (his setup for Bossy’s goal), but overall I think he had played better vs the Soviets before, like in game 4 of the 1972 series and in the round-robin game at the 1976 Canada Cup (against much weaker USSR team that time, though). Of course, Bobby Clarke’s line, especially Bob Gainey, deserve a mention; they contributed both defensively and offensively.

    All of the Team NHL’s four defensemen played well, but I was most impressed with Robinson and Savard, mostly playing separately. Barry Beck was very steady defensively, and Salming wasn’t too shabby, even though I don’t remember any huge highlights from him. Ken Dryden arguably had one of his best games against a Soviet team.

    Game 2

    USSR

    Tyumenev-Petrov-Mikhailov
    A. Golikov-V. Golikov-Makarov
    Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis
    Skvortsov-Kovin-Varnakov

    Starikov-Vasiliev
    Fedorov-Babinov
    Pervukhin-Bilyaletdinov

    Tretiak

    NHL

    Sittler-Perreault-McDonald
    Gainey-Clarke-Barber
    Shutt-Dionne-Lafleur
    Gillies-Trottier-Bossy

    Robinson-Salming
    Potvin-Lapointe
    Beck-Savard

    Dryden

    The game

    For game 2, Scotty Bowman has Guy Lapointe and Denis Potvin, who suffer from injuries, in the lineup and has dropped Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg, who hadn’t played that much in the first game anyway (mostly on the penalty kill). Team USSR have two new players, Sergei Babinov on defense, and the young Viktor Tyumenev replacing Kharlamov on the top line. Also, for some reason, the Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line acts as the 3rd and sometimes 4th rather than the 2nd line in the first two periods, and only in the 3rd period do they take their ‘rightful’ place and follow the top line in the rotation; did Tikhonov lower their rank for this game due to their bad performance in the first one or is this an example of the Soviet coach trying to match lines (i.e. to avoid Clarke's line)? I have no idea.
    The story before the game is also the bad ice (apparently there are holes on it through and through), and the Canadian broadcasting team is also oh so concerned about the referee Victor Dombrowski, whose work they had not appreciated much previously (although he was NOT one of the refs in the 1972 Summit, like the color guy Bobby Orr erroneously remembers). His name doesn’t come up much during the game, though, as the Soviets manage to turn the tables from game 1 all by themselves; they forecheck much more aggressively, take shots more eagerly, shoot the puck in and are more willing to battle with NHL’s defensemen on the boards and in front of the net, with also their own defensemen going in deep and playing more offensively. Thus, the NHL All-Stars have much more difficulties to get out of their own zone and create offense, many times icing the puck in the process. The Golikovs’ line pick up where they left off in the first game, and already fairly early create some pressure in the offensive zone. Soon after, Zhluktov’s line finally breaks through, as after somewhat messy play, Kapustin scores the first goal in the game. Still, it is not like the NHL doesn’t offer any offense, as can be seen from Gainey’s fine effort and shot on goal. At about midway point the NHL All-Stars get the first PP opportunity of the game. Already a standard in the series, The Golikov brothers plus Pervukhin and Bilyaletdinov are on the PK. At first, it looks like the same old story, but then the NHL finally break their spell and Bossy manages to score, thanks especially to the setup work by Trottier. If Tretiak had stayed nearer to the goal-line, though, I think he might have been able to stop it. Not too long after the goal, Dionne makes a bad pass in his own zone, and Kovin has a good chance in the slot, but Dryden makes a good save. Then, the USSR also get one PP chance in the period; not much happens on it, but at least Balderis gets a rare (for him) shot on net. Soon after, it is the NHL who strike once again and close the score in period 1, thanks to the strength of Gillies and the goal-scorer Trottier. Bowman also notices Gillies’ good form, and he is double-shifted already in the first period, and actually, the NHL seems to have so many different combinations that it is really hard to keep up at times. When re-watching this, despite the 3 goals and the Soviets playing much better and more aggressively than in the first game, I was a bit surprised that the period was so relatively uneventful when it comes to great scoring chances. All that was about to change…

    The 2nd period starts with a bang, when the NHL All-Stars score moments after a faceoff in their own zone. Perreault does nearly all of the work and is credited for the goal, but actually it is Sittler who deflects Perreault’s shot in. While both Vasiliev and Mikhailov play otherwise a brilliant game, they can be blamed for the goal a bit, since they give Perreault too much room and Mikhailov even turns away from him at the crucial point. So, the NHL has a two-goal lead. Golikovs’ line, once again, offer the best offense from the USSR at this point of the game, with Aleksandr shooting from the slot, and Dryden captures the rebound that ricochetes off the boards. In the following shift, Varnakov, taking advantage of a weird bounce in Team NHL’s zone and showing his speed, narrows the lead to one goal again. The Golikov duo tries to follow suit, and first Vladimir sets up Aleksandr who just can’t quite get a clear shot on the net, and moments later, Vladimir gets a shot away too. Amidst good pressure by the USSR, though, the All-Stars gain control in the neutral zone, and after some nice passing and moves by Dionne and especially Lafleur, Robinson extends NHL’s lead to two goals once again. Whereas on some previous scoring plays Tretiak might have come out of his net too eagerly, here it is the exact opposite; the color guys Orr and Irvin rightfully criticize his play on the goal. The Soviets don’t get disheartened, however, but rather strengthen their grip. Still, Team NHL have their moments, and Perreault has a great shift, where he first has the Soviet defenders dazed and confused and then sets up McDonald for a shot at goal. This is immediately followed by a great chance by Mikhailov, set up by Tyumenev, and then Zhluktov also gets a shot on Dryden, and Team NHL have to ice the puck, a common occurrence in the game. Moments later, after some pressure by the USSR’s top line, the Soviets get a PP opportunity, but they don’t a really good scoring chance on it. On Team NHL’s side, Lafleur shows his magic around the midway point and sets up Shutt in the high slot, but Tretiak, just like in the first game, looks steadier now and makes the save. Marcel Dionne, who hadn’t particularly stood out in the series, has one individual highlight moment too, when after nice moves he gets a good shot on Tretiak. Moments later, Barry Beck checks Skvortsov (too) hard on the boards, is penalized, and it's the Soviets’ top line on the power play. Right towards the end of that, Petrov (with Vasiliev) assists and Mikhailov scores from his favorite spot in front of the net. Guy Lapointe is a little too late on the play, like some other times in this game too. Under a minute after that, the Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line who hadn’t done much since Kapustin’s first goal, score right after a faceoff in their offensive zone. Dryden is caught a bit flat-footed by Kapustin’s quick shot. The final moments of the period are pretty much all Soviets; firstly, there is good pressure by Kovin’s line, and after that by Petrov’s line, with e.g. Petrov re-directing a Tyumenev shot near the crease and just missing (the top of) the net. The shots on goal in the period favor the Soviets 14-5, which says something about the balance of the play. However, the score is still 4-4, so theoretically at least, anything could happen.

    Near at the beginning of the 3rd period, Bobby Clarke has one of his fairly rare highlight moments in the game, as he gets a good shot on goal after a good check by Barber. In the very next shift, however, Vladimir Golikov scores the game winning goal on a 2-on-1 with Makarov. Team USSR is pretty much in charge for the rest of the period, but there is still some lovely coast-to-coast action, like here between Petrov’s line and Gainey, Perreault and Lafleur (the latter getting a lot of ice-time in the game). The USSR’s top line really started to shine around the midway of this game, and they have many terrific shifts, like this one against Gillies, Trottier and Bossy; Petrov gets two shots on/at goal and does a brilliant backchecking job in between. The true skillsters on Team NHL’s offense, namely Perreault, Dionne and Lafleur, still have some fire in the later stages too, and manage to offer some decent pressure (good work by Potvin there too) but there's no really clear shot on goal. Aleksandr Skvortsov, taking a pass from another ‘Sasha’ (Golikov) has the last good chance of the game, but Dryden saves. The NY Islanders’ Trio Grande also nearly has a good scoring chance after a faceoff towards the end, and after pulling Dryden, Perreault, Clarke, Lafleur, and Robinson, Salming and Potvin try hard to score the equalizer but they just don’t get a good shot away. So it is a well-deserved win for the Soviets; the shots on goal favor them 31-16, and like the NHL All-Stars in the first game, they simply were the better team.

    A closer look at the Soviet performance plus Team NHL in game 2
    I hope I don’t sound like a little fanboy, but in my opinion, Mikhailov, Petrov and their ad hoc left winger for the game, Viktor Tyumenev, played an absolutely brilliant game. I would like to especially mention Petrov, whose 0+1 stats line in the series doesn’t maybe give a fair picture of his efforts; at least in this game, he was as equally good as Mikhailov in my opinion, and made many great plays. In addition to the ones already linked above, Petrov also e.g. got a shot on goal after intercepting a careless pass by Sittler, and, although not really known for having a great hockey IQ, made a clever blind pass between his legs to Tyumenev, once again intercepting a pass. I should also credit Tyumenev who found a good chemistry with Petrov and Mikhailov, especially from the 2nd period on, despite zero experience playing with them.

    The Golikov-Golikov-Makarov line pretty much continued the same excellent level of play as in the first game. Although Makarov would emerge as clearly the best player of the three, you wouldn’t necessarily know it watching this series – so well play the Golikovs. Vladimir especially deserves a mention for his timely goal-scoring, plus he always looked more versatile (not to mention, a clearly more fluent skater) of the two brothers; sadly he got injured in this game (charley horse, like Kharlamov), I don’t know how or when it happened, but he certainly had already made his mark in the first two games of the series.

    Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line was the only Soviet forward unit who scored 2 goals in the game, so I couldn’t possibly call them the worst Soviet line in the game? Oh yes I can! Firstly, they created the least scoring chances of all, and Balderis was still nearly invisible. While Viktor Tikhonov lavishly praises his team’s overall performance in game 2 in his book, he also writes that the coaches still weren’t happy with all the players; I’m fairly sure that first and foremost he means Balderis. And despite Kapustin scoring two goals, it is noticeable that he wasn’t chosen as the Game MVP for the Soviets (Vasiliev). As for Zhluktov, if I had to describe his performance in any given game, the answer would always be pretty much the same: reliable but unspectacular (“poor man’s Petrov”?), I really ought to take a closer look at him some day. The line, especially Balderis, still had something to prove in game 3.

    Skvortsov, Kovin and Varnakov finally got on the scoreboard in the 2nd period and played a very solid game generally too, with quite a few scoring chances. It is interesting that even the performance in this series didn’t help them becoming a regular forward unit on the Soviet national team; at the 1984 Canada Cup, where they also made a rare appearance as a forward line, the Canadian broadcaster Ron Reusch informed that it was because they played too aggressively (dirty?) and take too many penalties, especially vs European competition. Whatever the case, they were rarely seen as a full unit since, not even at the 1979 World Championship a couple of months later, and based on this series, maybe it was a shame.

    On Soviet defense, Valeri Vasiliev was obviously a standout and the Soviet MVP (officially). I don’t remember seeing his trademark devastating hits that much, but his work on PP and his playmaking had clearly improved since the mid-1970s. The other pointmen in the game played very well too, regarding both defense and (supporting) offense, and Sergei Babinov was a good addition to the lineup.
    Tretiak’s performance was similarly ‘dualistic’ as in the first game; shaky and mediocre during the first half, steady and reliable during the latter. Still, 12 saves on 16 shots, that’s no good, there is no getting around it, and so Tikhonov made his conclusions for the deciding 3rd game.

    If it was slightly hard to pick the top NHL performers in the first game, it is even harder for this game but for the opposite reasons; the team simply didn’t play well. Bryan Trottier got the Game MVP nod (NHL), and he was certainly brilliant in the first period, but not such a huge factor after that; the accolade could have been given to Gillies too in my opinion. Lafleur got a lot of ice-time, was often double-shifted and he was certainly one of the rare standouts on the team, but it was more of flashes of brilliance than a great consistent effort; still, always a dangerous player, no question about that. The same could be said about Gilbert Perreault, but I actually think that he might have been a little bit better than Lafleur in the game. Bob(by)s Gainey and Clarke also deserve a mention, if only for the fact that they weren’t nearly as effective as in the first, neither defensively nor offensively. Noticeably, Bowman started to put Gainey sometimes together with Perreault and Lafleur, and that would continue also in game 3.

    Of Team NHL’s defenders, only Larry Robinson seemed to stand out, and the additions, Potvin and Lapointe were disappointing, maybe understandably for the reasons mentioned above; this would also be the latter’s only showing in the series. Ken Dryden then, he certainly didn’t play great, but I don’t think he was so poor – especially with hindsight – that he had to be replaced for the 3rd game. In the book The Game, Dryden (who was capable of self-criticism) himself questioned Bowman’s decision and so also did Chico Resch when interviewed during game 3. I don’t know…

    Game 3

    USSR

    A. Golikov-Petrov-Mikhailov
    Tyumenev-Gimaev-Makarov
    Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis
    Skvortsov-Kovin-Varnakov

    Starikov-Vasiliev
    Pervukhin-Bilyaletdinov
    Fedorov-Babinov

    Myshkin

    NHL

    Barber-Clarke-McDonald
    Gainey-Perreault-Lafleur
    Hedberg-Nilsson-Marcotte
    Gillies-Trottier-Bossy
    Sittler

    Robinson-Salming
    Beck-Savard
    Potvin

    Cheevers

    The game

    So, Vladimir Myshkin in nets for the USSR, Gerry Cheevers for Team NHL; I would think that the Soviets gained the psychological advantage there, or at least Team NHL players/Bowman were more surprised than the other way around. After all, I think Myshkin had played only one game against Czechoslovakia in the 1978 Rude Pravo Cup, but the NHL players wouldn’t have known about that, and many of the Soviet players were at least somewhat familiar with Cheevers (the 1974 Summit Series). It is interesting that no new Canadian/NHL superstar goalies had emerged since 1972-74 (another ‘dinosaur’ Tony Esposito was the other backup goalie in the series)! The Soviets also have a totally new line formation, where the forward/defenseman (usually the former on Team USSR) Irek Gimaev centers Viktor Tyumenev and Sergei Makarov, and Aleksandr Golikov replaced Tyumenev on the top line with Petrov and Mikhailov. On Team NHL, Nilsson and Hedberg were back, and this time they get regular shifts, playing mostly with the debutant Don Marcotte. Marcel Dionne is dropped. Lafleur once again gets a lot of ice-time, and Gainey and Sittler seem to move around quite a bit (like already indicated, my head was soon spinning when I tried to keep up with all the different line formations).
    The first period is somewhat boring and uneventful one, but I’ll try to show a few highlights. There had been a couple of shots on goal earlier, but the first real scoring chance comes when Balderis gets a shot from fairly close to the net; it took some time, but finally he starts to look as dangerous as is his reputation. On his part, the ‘Canadian Balderis’ Lafleur also shoots on net but from a bad angle, like a lion’s share of the Team NHL’s chances in the game. Moments later, there is an amusing reminiscence from the 1974 WHA vs the USSR series when, after a long shot by Fedorov, Cheevers hits Mikhailov with his stick, even though the latter wasn’t even very near the crease. But I guess Cheevers wanted to make sure that he wouldn’t get near it either. Boris Mikhailov simply wasn’t a well-liked player among the goaltenders! Some time after the faceoff, Golikov sets up Petrov who blasts a shot from the slot – along with Balderis’ shot earlier, probably the best chance for either team in the period. NHL’ers counter with a few long/bad angle shots, like the one from McDonald, from Hedberg and from Barber. The hockey was fast-paced, but in terms of good chances, these might have been the dullest 20 minutes of hockey played in the series, but that was about to change…

    At the start of the 2nd period, Perreault steals the puck from Mikhailov, and has a decent chance on Myshkin but once again from weak angle. A few minutes later, after some close checking and scrambly play around the blue line (including a great check by Bilyaletdinov on Perrault), Golikov intercepts a pass from Gainey, passes the puck to Mikhailov who scores with a low wrister to the left corner. Barry Beck plays it far too cautiously and Mikhailov isn't even required to do much of a move there. Then, the Soviets get a PP, and they don’t waste the opportunity. Balderis, twisting and turning in the corner, makes a great pass to Zhluktov in front of the net who pokes it in between two defensemen (Savard and Potvin). The writing started to be on the wall. In the following shift, Skvortsov, Kovin and Varnakov create much havoc in Team NHL’s zone, and then Mikhailov has a good chance from the slot; he appears to be a bit mad at himself that he was unable to bury it. Around the midway of the period, Vasiliev is sent to the penalty box; on the PP, first Nilsson has a decent chance and moments later, Lafleur even a better one, but Myshkin handles it. Then Trottier offends Myshkin, and somehow both players get penalized (there was also a little shove by Myshkin but Trottier was in his crease). A strange situation. The USSR’s captain Mikhailov is most upset and from what I can gather, is threatening to take his team off the ice unless the ref doesn’t start to deal with the rough stuff better; shades of the Flyers vs CSKA game from 1976. Anyway, when it’s back to the action (4-on-4), Sergei Kapustin has a very good chance when Fedorov headmans the puck to him and he manages to shake off Salming. After that, not much of note happens, and the deciding period follows…

    The 3rd period starts with some strange playing by the Soviets. I can see that they are trying to stop Team NHL from getting something going by disrupting their play, but (seemingly deliberate?) icing isn’t a very smart way of doing it – especially, since the NHL players were still somewhat better on faceoffs. Soon, though, there is some lively action following; Hedberg, who had been fairly invisible thus far, gets a decent shot on Myshkin, and soon after that there’s Bossy with a quick wrister; hardly a great chance but probably Trio Grande’s best in the whole game. In the other end, Balderis makes a great move, fooling Beck, and shoots at net but just misses the upper right corner. Then, after a faceoff, a Robinson shot from the blueline gets deflected by either an NHL or Soviet player, but the puck trickles by the Soviet net. The USSR have the best scoring chance in the game that did not result to a goal when Perreault is stripped off the puck in his own zone and moments later Skvortsov hits the crossbar, with Cheevers down and out. Right after Lafleur has a great rush and later also gets a shot on the goal, but Barber can’t quite get to the rebound. The NHL still has some fight left at this point. There’s more of two-way action when Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line first has a chance in front of the net but Potvin makes a good defensive play and then joins on a rush with Clarke and and Barber, but there is no shot on goal, though. Team NHL’s fire is put out when, due to their eagerness to score the first goal (and with Tyumenev tripping Barber a bit), Gimaev and Balderis get a 2-on-1 and the latter makes it 3-0 for the USSR. Vladimir Kovin adds to NHL’s misery when after some pressure by NHL, he scores with a slapper from the deep slot – the first truly ‘bad goal’ of the game. For what it’s worth, a couple of shifts later, Ulf Nilsson has arguably Team NHL’s best scoring chance in the game after being set up by Savard and Beck. After that, there’s Salming’s shot on goal, but it is merely a ‘so what’ moment at this stage, especially when soon after Makarov gets half a breakaway and scores with backhand shot even though simultaneously being slashed by Potvin. This scoring play – like the previous one with Balderis and Gimaev – also sort of emphasizes the USSR’s team effort in this match, as Makarov is set up by a player from a different forward line – Sergei Kapustin. So, it is 5 to 0, and there’s nothing much to tell anymore, except that the NHL All-Stars get a power play opportunity, but rather conveniently, it is the Soviets who score when Aleksandr Golikov, killing the penalty with Petrov, blasts a long shot past the ‘frozen’ Cheevers – almost identical to Kovin’s earlier goal. With that, NHL’s humiliation is complete, and the final moments are just about waiting for the game to end. Somewhat surprisingly, Team NHL had the shots on goal 24 to 19, but that is hardly any consolation.

    A closer look at the Soviet performance plus Team NHL in game 3
    After such a team triumph, it feels almost futile to analyze the play of different lines/players, but I will try anyway…
    The top line of Golikov, Petrov and Mikhailov played very well, of course, but during the latter part of the game, they mostly seemed content with letting the other lines take over and did not offer very aggressive offense anymore, although there were some good rushes and a few shots at goal. Mikhailov once again scored a key goal (the first one/GWG), and had a couple of good chances as well. He was also named as the Soviet MVP of the series, which is fine by me, although Vasiliev and Aleksandr Golikov could have gotten the honor too (as Vladimir Golikov was unable to play in game 3). His role as a team captain was also very evident especially in the last game; not only was he very vocal when not happy with refereeing, but also constantly gave shouts of encouragement to his teammates on the bench. Aleksandr Golikov played an excellent game, an assist and a (solo) goal. Petrov did not particularly shine, but he was steady and got a few slapshots away and took care of his defensive duties.

    The totally new forward line for the game, Tyumenev-Gimaev-Makarov, played also well, if not spectalurarly (which is understandable). One has to single out Makarov, who at 20 was already close to becoming the USSR’s top forward, and who scored that highlight reel goal. Gimaev also deserves a special mention for setting up Balderis’ goal.

    As for the Kapustin-Zhluktov-Balderis line, finally they found their chemistry and was arguably the best Soviet unit in the game. Especially for Balderis, this was quite a redemption after two weak games, and I have no problems naming his as the best Team USSR player of game 3; an excellent setup for Zhluktov, plus a nice goal, and he was dangerous throughout. Kapustin and Zhluktov, while not as electric as as their linemate, have many good moments as well, with Kapustin’s terrific speed often evident.

    The line of those little men, Skvortsov, Kovin and Varnakov, were, if not quite the best, the most entertaining Soviet forward unit in the game, as could be seen from the clips above – they really had Team NHL’s defense mesmerized at times. It is a bit of a shame that the only goal they scored was somewhat anti-climatic, even though a nice setup work preceded it. Like said, they did not often play together in the big international tournaments anymore after this, but during the next few years, especially Skvortsov was a regular player on Team USSR, and later when Varnakov had his best years in the mid-‘80s, he would often play on the Soviet team in 1984-87.

    It is hard to single out standouts on the Soviet defense; I think everyone deserves top marks, since there were so few truly good chances on Myshkin. Speaking of whom, he got Team USSR’s Game MVP award, but that was a bit of flattery towards Team NHL; he really didn’t have to do very much, and although it is hard to compare a goalie and a skater, Balderis was clearly the bigger star in the game in my opinion. Furthermore, Myshkin didn’t even look very steady, but I guess that was always part of his style of play too – falling over and (trying) covering the puck, that is.

    Team NHL then, well, like two and a half years later in the 1981 Canada Cup final, there were not many highlight performances; Guy Lafleur did what he could under the circumstances, and he seemed to do more by himself than the whole NY Islanders line, for example, so I guess he was the offensive ‘star’ for the NHL. Clarke Gillies got not only the NHL All-Stars' Game MVP nod, but was also named as the NHL's MVP of the whole series; I’m not so sure about the choice, since he was excellent in the first two games, but fairly invisible (though still towering over the Soviet players and throwing his weight around) in the 3rd in my opinion. On defense, Lafleur’s Habs teammate Larry Robinson seemed to get burned the least, and he, along with Lafleur, could have also gotten the MVP honors instead of Gillies. All in all, the players were from mediocre to bad, the most famous example of the latter category was Gerry Cheevers, of course. However, it should be remembered that he started to let in bad goals only late in the game (by Kovin and Golikov) when the game was already lost, and if a team fails to score a single goal and does not even get many good chances, the goalie isn’t really the one to blame. Sure, a 3-0 or 4-0 loss would have been less-embarrassing…

    The final analysis


    I don’t want to overrate the meaning of this three-game series; it was by no means put together perfectly, and it didn’t single-handedly prove that the Soviet team was the best in the world or that they had the more skilled players. Still, I would strongly argue against any suggestions that it didn’t mean or prove anything. Firstly, the series was not just shoved down the NHL players’ throat without any time for preparation; already back in May 1978 at the World Championship it was known that a series between the USSR’s and the NHL’s best players was going to happen, and I’m fairly sure that at least the biggest NHL superstars knew already months before that they would likely to participate. This time, you can’t really point out any differences in the players’ condition, since it was February and the NHL players were in top form (and well, no one ever prevented them from being in condition back in September 1972, or during the Canada Cups etc!).

    What about the injuries, the chemistry? Yes, the NHL All-Stars had some star players missing or not 100 percent healthy, like Brad Park, and Denis Potvin and Guy Lapointe; that can easily be countered , though, with the fact that Team USSR was missing Aleksandr Maltsev and the young Viacheslav Fetisov, and they would lose another two key players in Valeri Kharlamov and Vladimir Golikov in games 1 and 2, respectively. (Not sure about what happened to Gennadiy Tsygankov.) As for the chemistry factor, obviously the Soviets had the advantage in that area, as you do when there is a team where most of the players practice and play throughout the year as opposed to a team that is put together on ad hoc basis. However, due to the injuries, Tikhonov had to make quick fixes to the lines and add rookie-like players Tyumenev and Gimaev with very little or no experience of playing with the others, especially at this level. The NHL All-Stars also had one full NHL forward line in Gillies, Trottier and Bossy, and other lines had at least two forwards who were linemates in their NHL teams too. (It changed a bit during the second game and in the third game, when Bowman apparently felt that he had to do something.) Furthermore, if chemistry had played as big a role as some people feel (?) it did, then you would have expected that it was the Soviets who had started the series strongly and it had been Team NHL who had kept getting better the longer it went, but it was the exact opposite! Maybe the Soviets just had a bad night in game 1 and made the NHL All-Stars look better and more harmonic than they actually were; I’d still claim, though, that it would be a half-truth at best, and the NHL’ers did play an excellent game, one of the best by a North American team vs a Soviet team.

    So, what did happen between game 1 and the rest of the series? One participant with an analytical mind, Ken Dryden, has interesting observations in his book The Game, concerning the Challenge Cup and Soviet hockey. He writes about possession game and transition game and that during the series, the Soviets finally realized that hockey was really about the latter, and then adjusted and took advantage of Team NHL’s weaknesses. Dryden does not quite claim that they started to play in the North American way but rather that it was “our game played their way” and also that “the essence of their style of game did not change.” That sounds a pretty fair description to me, although I think that the most robotic elements (like the endless regrouping in the neutral zone while looking for the ‘perfect play’) had already started to disappear from the Soviet game as Tikhonov took over in 1977. Speaking of whom, on his part, Tikhonov seemingly talks about the differences of possession game and transition game in his book too, although he doesn’t use those exact terms; namely he says that the Canadian game is about creating 60 % of their scoring chances by pressuring opponents and forcing them to make mistakes and creating only 40 % themselves, whereas with the Soviets the percentages are reversed. However, at no point does he admit that the USSR played in the North American style in the Challenge Cup (only that Bowman, whom he considers having similar thoughts about hockey as European coaches, decided to play overly so in game 3); he mostly just emphasizes the will power and grit of the Soviet players as the key for their success in games 2 and 3. Tikhonov does conclude, though, that the Soviets should also learn from the NHL players when it comes to shooting, playing the rebounds and – using Salming and especially Robinson as examples – defensemen playing offensively. I do think that while the fundamentals of Soviet hockey did not change, they would keep on getting stronger in the more ‘Canadian’ areas of hockey, like shooting, faceoffs, physicality, playing on the boards and in the slot.

    One more important aspect in the development of the Soviet national team and Soviet hockey around this time was the emergence of four forward lines; already in the 1960s when coaching Dinamo Riga, Tikhonov had experimented with four forward lines, even though the team didn’t have good depth. This apparently produced great results, or at least Riga advanced from the lower leagues to the top Soviet league in an impressive short time in the 1960s-1970s under Tikhonov’s guidance. Now in the 1978-79 season, the use of four forward units finally became a standard for the national team too, and it worked very well in the Challenge Cup, as in most of the games, every line contributed. It was not like the four lines would ever be equally strong (especially when KLM/Green Unit broke through), but in 1979-82 especially the Soviet national team(s) had great depth.

    As for the Challenge Cup as a competition between the Soviets’ and the NHL’s/Canada’s best, I think that Alan Eagleson (and John Ziegler) really fooled himself and mistakenly thought that the NHL All-Stars could pull it off – despite the little practice time the NHL players had together as a team (and after game 1, he really must have rubbed his hands). I’m only guessing here, but possibly Eagleson had also been encouraged by the Soviets’ struggles in international competition in 1976-78, during which they e.g. lost the world championship twice to Czechoslovakia and barely managed to win one in 1978 (by goal-differential); the power of this Soviet team must have been a bit of a shock to him too.

    What if this had been a proper 8 game series à la 1972 Summit Series? I’m not an oracle, but not surprisingly in my opinion, the USSR would have prevailed this time – providing that they would have not kept on losing their key players at the similar rate as in the Challenge Cup. The NHL All-Stars would’ve had to play much better than what was seen in games 2 and 3 of this series, and I don’t believe that just getting more practice time and, with that, better chemistry would have been the (only) solution. Still, as Viktor Tikhonov also admits in his book (citing the 1972 series as an example), the Canadians also had the ability to “learn from their losses”, so even if I would favor the Soviets in an 8-game series, I wouldn’t bet my life on it. My strong belief is that such a series would have had the potential to produce some of the greatest hockey of all-time, especially if/when there inevitably had been some games where both teams played at their best. So, in a sense I feel like it was a missed opportunity, but I’m still glad that we got at least these three games, with fast-paced action, many superstar players and many wonderful moments in it.

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