Team USA faces a feisty Russian squad
Now is the time for looking into the abyss at the World Cup of Hockey. The team that can do so without flinching and step back three times can call itself the finest hockey team in the world.
In preparing for the start of elimination games Tuesday in St. Paul where the third-seeded United States takes on second seed Russia, and Wednesday in Toronto where unbeaten Canada hosts winless Slovakia in the other North American quarterfinal game, the challenge is to both forget the past and learn from it.
Dwell too much on the past and it clouds the future.
Fail to learn from mistakes and the future will be short.
Nowhere is that dilemma more keenly felt than in the edgy American dressing room.
The defending World Cup of Hockey champions looked, for the most part, slow and uninspired in the pool games where they went 1-2 and were dominated in losses to Canada and Russia.
Their only win came in the final prelim game against hapless Slovakia by a 3-1 count and only after coach Ron Wilson visited seminal changes in his lineup that included benching the third all-time scorer in the National Hockey League, Brett Hull.
Wilson has been holding his cards close to his vest as to what lineup he will use in a rematch against the surprising Russians, but his decision on Hull stands to be the most closely watched and pending the outcome, the most vigorously second-guessed.
"We're going to go with the warriors who have gotten us here," Wilson said over the weekend.
But where is "here"?
To this point in this tournament? To this place in American hockey history?
If it's the latter, then Hull, who led all scorers in 1996 and is a certain Hall of Famer, will be back in the lineup against the Russians.
If it's the former, then Hull doesn't deserve to be on the ice.
Wilson called benching the lethargic 40-year-old Hull the most difficult he's made at any level of coaching.
Although Wilson said Hull took the news like a professional, the mercurial forward has behaved anything like a pro since, stalking off the ice 10 minutes before his teammates at practice Sunday and brushing off the media, saying he didn't give a "bleep" about the fans anymore.
It's a shame such sentiment could well be the lasting memory of Hull's international career with Team USA, and it makes you wonder whether Canadian executive director Wayne Gretzky has an opt-out clause in the two-year, $4.5 million deal Hull signed with Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes.
Regardless of which aged lineup Wilson opts to use (the Americans are the oldest of the eight teams in the tournament with an average age of 31.6, three of the oldest players in competition and three of the oldest defensemen), Team USA will be in for a tough haul against a surprisingly cohesive Russian unit that seemed in disarray on the eve of the tournament thanks to defections and injuries to top players.
Coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will have to decide whether to keep super prospect Alexander Ovechkin in the lineup after inserting him in the third game against Slovakia on Sunday.
Ovechkin gave fans in Toronto an eyeful, playing the body and scoring a goal.
Look for the top pick in last June's entry draft to remain in the lineup and for Andrei Kovalenko, who flashed Toronto fans the finger in Saturday's 3-1 loss to Canada, to be scratched once again.
The Americans, who have struggled at the outset of games, will be faced with having to shut down two powerful offensive units, one featuring Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and likely Maxim Afinogenov and the other made up of Alex Kovalev, Sergei Samsonov and Viktor Kozlov.
Kovalev scored the nicest goal of the tournament against the Americans and has been the team's leader on the ice.
The key for the Americans will be in trying to disrupt the Russians in their own zone.
Defensive breakdowns led to Canadian goals in the Russians' only loss, and the Americans must establish a vigorous forecheck to have a chance to advance.
Smolinski has a history of big game performances, having set up goals in both American victories in the 1996 final against Canada.
Strangely, the one area that most figured would be the downfall of American championship hopes, goaltending, has been the lone bright spot.
Look for Esche to return to the American goal Tuesday where his play will be crucial.
At the other end of the ice, the Russians will also be counting on the continued fine play of Anaheim prospect Ilya Bryzgalov to keep alive their Cinderella run.
Esche's playoff experience with the Philadelphia Flyers this past spring should give the Americans one of the few edges in this match.
Bryzgalov has but 92 minutes of NHL play under his belt.
The second quarterfinal features dramatically different dynamics.
Canada has proven with its 3-0 record that it is the gold medal standard, allowing just three goals. The Canadians have never trailed.
But as coach Pat Quinn quickly pointed out, Sweden was a dominating force at the 2002 Olympics, undefeated in pool play, before bowing to unheralded Belarus in the quarterfinal.
That will be the challenge for a Canadian squad that has mastered team play in a surprisingly short period of time and done so in spite of critical injuries along the blue line to Ed Jovanovski (gone for the tournament with a knee and rib injury) and Wade Redden.
Redden could return from a sprained shoulder against Slovakia, but the stalwart play of youngsters Jay Bouwmeester (20) and Scott Hannan (25) may lead Quinn to rest him in anticipation of a semifinal game Saturday.
Although Canada has not shown the explosiveness of the Russians or Swedes, scoring 11 times in three games, there has been little shuffling of the forward units and scoring chances have been plentiful.
The only question that remains for a young Canadian team is how the players respond to the pressure of playing an elimination game in front of an adoring Toronto crowd.
Barring a complete abandonment of form, Canada should waltz into the second elimination round.
The Slovaks, on the other hand, are the biggest disappointment of the tournament.
Picked by many to be the dark horse in the North American pool, the talented offensive corps has managed just four goals in three games.
Defensively the Slovaks figured to be vulnerable, and they have been, allowing 13 goals.
Goaltending has also been spotty even though Jan Lasak has impeccable international credentials.
Injuries before and during the tournament (Peter Bondra, Michal Handzus and Richard Zednik, who had food poisoning but returned to the lineup, have all been lost since training camp) seem to have sapped the life from a Slovakian team that had designs on a championship here.
"We will have to have our dream best game," towering defenseman Zdeno Chara acknowledged.
Scoring first in both games will be a crucial because the teams scoring first are 12-0-1, including Monday's 2-1 win by Finland over Germany in the first European quarterfinal.
There has yet to be a lead change in the tournament.