Team USA objective: Slow Russian 'train'

Updated: January 2, 2005, 2:36 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Defense wins championships, right?

Well, apparently, this Team USA squad doesn't believe in that tried-and-true sports bromide. On Saturday night, against a pair of hard-to-spell, but not hard-to-solve goaltenders (David Rautio Berguv and Christopher Heino-Lindberg), the turnover-prone Americans rode a five-goal third period to an 8-2 rout of Sweden.

The Swedish goaltending was so dreadful, coach Torgny Bendelin called five of the eight goals "cheap because of bad goaltending."

Cheap goals or not, the win sets up a semifinal showdown with Russia on Sunday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Team USA skated away with a thrilling 5-4 win over the Russians on Christmas Day, the first day of the tournament. In that game, Russian star winger Alexander Ovechkin fanned on a one-timer from the left-wing circle that could have tied the game at the buzzer.

DARREN PANG
Darren Pang Team USA made some defensive mistakes early against the Swedes, but goaltender Al Montoya made the saves he was supposed to make early on to give his team some much needed confidence.

I actually liked the fact that the first shot against Montoya went in, because he didn't start sitting on his heels like he has in previous games. His balance was on his toes and he was initiating movement, not halfway in-between.

After the 3-on-1 that led to the first goal, Montoya bounced back with a big, solid save. That gives teammates a great deal of confidence; they're on their toes instead of looking behind and wondering if the next one will go in.

Late in the first period, he showed more poise and patience by standing firm in his crouch, letting the puck hit him and controlling the rebound. In the second period, he made a great decision with a poke check, at the halfway point of the game and the score still close.

I like that Montoya has not shied away from the criticism. He's showing tremendous leadership and maturity at a time when the pressure has been at its highest.

The Russians will be a greater test for the Americans in their defensive zone. Their tenacity and man-on-man coverage will have to greatly improve, especially on the cycles from the corners. Montoya will have to have patience on the first shot so he is prepared for the second attempts.
The Americans can expect a much tougher test from the rested Russians, who earned a bye into the semis. Historically, in World Junior competition, Team Russia gets stronger with each game.

"They're like a train that picks up speed as it moves down the track," said an amateur scout with a Western Conference NHL team. "It looks like the same story this year."

This second meeting shapes up as another high-tempo, high-scoring game. With an average of nearly five goals a game, the Americans' strong suit is clearly offense. The Russians, led by Ovechkin and oversized center Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in the 2004 NHL draft, have been even better, averaging a little better than five goals in their four games.

Both clubs, however, are suspect on defense and neither has been particularly good in net.

The goaltending has been particularly disappointing for the Americans, who were banking on University of Michigan stopper Al Montoya (a first-round pick of the New York Rangers in 2004) to duplicate his gold-medal winning performance from last year. Montoya turned in a steady performance against the Swedes, but if Team USA expects to advance to Tuesday's gold-medal game, Montoya must be at the top of his game against the Russians.

"He's struggling," said a Western Conference scout of Montoya. "I've seen him a number of times this year and he's seems to be having a hard time finding his game."

But Team USA's struggles aren't all Montoya's fault. The Americans are playing fast and loose in their own zone. Of the seven defensemen selected for this team, only Ryan Suter and Alex Goligoski have been close to consistent. Several scouts have wondered out loud about this year's selection process, which left top young American-born defenders A.J. Thelen (12th overall pick, 2004, Minnesota Wild), Jack Johnson (U.S. National Team Development Program) and Matt Lashoff (OHL) off the roster. All three would bring some much-needed size to the American backline.

To beat Russia, the Americans have two choices: slow down Ovechkin and Malkin or outscore them. Based on Team USA's defensive play in this tournament, the latter might be their best bet.

NOTES: Wayne Gretzky arrived in Grand Forks on Saturday to watch the tournament and, presumably, cheer on Team Canada. Gretzky has been a big part of Hockey Canada since his retirement from the NHL, directing the Red and White to Olympic (2002) and World Cup (2004) victories ... Scouts have been very impressed with big Czech defenders Roman Polak (sixth-round pick, 2004, St. Louis Blues) and Martin Tuma (fifth-round pick, 2003, Florida Panthers). Both have been learning their trade in the Canadian Hockey League. Polak skates for Ste. St. Marie in the OHL, while Tuma plays for Kootenay in the Western league ... Canada, which rolled through the preliminary round, faces the Czechs in the other semifinal. The underdog Czechs will need a big-time performance from goalie Marek Schwarz, who was a first round pick (17th overall) of the Blues last June. Schwarz, who catches with his right hand, has the talent to keep it close.

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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