Keys to the game for Canada, Russia
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Heading into Wednesday's quarterfinal game between Canada and Russia, we take a look at what's at stake for both teams:
Burnside: Five reasons Canada will win1. Physicality: No team in this tournament can match the Canadians in terms of their size and physicality. Rick Nash has been a force and likely will play with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf again, and they will be a factor in disrupting a Russian defense that could be susceptible to an aggressive forecheck. It wouldn't be surprising to see that trio on the ice against Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin, the Russians' big line. Canada coach Mike Babcock likes to match strength against strength.
On the back end, the big Canadian blueliners -- Shea Weber, Brent Seabrook and Chris Pronger -- will have to make life miserable for Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk et al, by punishing them in the corners and stopping them from cycling the puck and setting up scoring chances.
"We can play rough-and-tough style, I'm not worried about that," Jarome Iginla said. "But you know what? We've been getting, I thought, more physical and we've been skating better each game."
2. Lords of discipline: The Canadians ultimately lost that crucial preliminary-round game against the United States because they took a string of penalties, which disrupted the flow of a game Canada appeared on the verge of taking over. Canada cannot take penalties against a Russian team that boasts a dizzying arsenal of world-class scorers, although Russia's power play has sputtered through the preliminary round (2-for-16 on the man advantage).
One issue for the Canadians will be in responding to Ovechkin if he is able to land the big hits he's been handing out throughout the tournament. Not reacting to those hits will be key.
"I'm sure he's going to hit one guy, if not more," Sidney Crosby said. "I wouldn't be surprised, but that's part of the game and it's going to be tough, it's going to be a battle. But it's part of the game and we expect that. I don't expect us to be intimidated; it's going to be tough, though."
3. Quick out of the blocks: When Team USA's Brian Rafalski scored 41 seconds into Sunday's game, it forced the Canadians to chase the game. They have the skill to come from behind, but a quick start will engage the pro-Canadian crowd and make life more difficult for a Russian team that hasn't had to play from behind much in this tournament.
The Canadians have taken more shots than any team in the tournament by a wide margin, and starting out the game with that mentality will be key in keeping the atmosphere electric.
"Tonight, when that place was rocking right at the start, it'd be great if we can keep this going [against Russia]," Babcock said after Canada's 8-2 rout of Germany on Tuesday night. "It's a great building, a great atmosphere. We're real proud to be Canadian and playing here. It should be a barn burner [Wednesday]. I know if I wasn't involved I'd be watching for sure."
4. The Nabokov factor: We don't know whether Roberto Luongo will stand on his head, but he might not have to if Russian netminder Evgeni Nabokov has an off day. Four years ago in Torino, Italy, Nabokov stoned the Canadians in the quarterfinals, but faded as the Russians lost to the Finns and Czechs and finished out of the medals.
In the ensuing four years, Nabokov has turned in spectacular regular-season numbers but has never quite been able to carry the freight for his San Jose Sharks when it matters most. We were shocked (although apparently no one in Russia shared this sentiment) the Russians went with Nabokov over Phoenix Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov once the elimination games arrived. By the end of Wednesday, the Canadians might be happy that was the case.
"It can go both ways that way, I think," Marleau said. "It's one of those things where all the goalies here are really good. You've got to get a lot of rubber at them and some traffic and usually it's the second chances that go in."
5. The audition is over: After tinkering from the outset with wingers for Crosby on the top line, Babcock's latest concoction of Crosby with Iginla and Eric Staal seems to have hit all the right notes. Tuesday night, Crosby and Iginla combined for three goals (one on the power play) and Staal had three assists.
"I thought Sid was jumping," Babcock said. "I thought that line was really good tonight. Iggy has played on it off and on the whole tournament. I thought Staal was very effective. I thought that group was real focused and played real well the whole game."
With the Russians rolling Ovechkin, Malkin and Semin, then Pavel Datsyuk, Kovalchuk and Maxim Afinogenov, it will be key for the Canadians to match them. With the Crosby line cooking, it should give the Canadians an edge in offensive depth with Nash, Perry and Getzlaf and the Heatley, Thornton and Marleau line.
LeBrun: Five reasons Russia will win
1. Russia has Canada's number: Russia is on a three-game winning streak against Canada in men's international play, beating Canada in the Olympic quarterfinals in Torino four years ago and edging them in the past two gold-medal games at the world championships. Right now, there's an inner belief among the Russian players that they can beat Canada any time they play them in a big tournament.
"It doesn't matter what happened before, it's a big day for us [Wednesday]," Datsyuk said Tuesday. German defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, fresh off his team's 8-2 loss against Canada on Tuesday, didn't hesitate when asked which team he thought would win Wednesday.
"Russia," he said. "They bring skill, but they also play very hard and physical. They have a great goalie, and I think they have the complete package to pull it off here."
2. Pressure on the host team: The pressure on Team Canada to deliver is insane. The Russians can exploit that, especially if they score first.
"They are under pressure a lot and they are playing in Canada," said veteran Russian forward Sergei Fedorov. "It's not easy, but they have experienced guys and they've been through a lot. They are a very, very strong team."
Babcock said the pressure here on home soil can be a positive if his players drink it up, but added it can be a great equalizer if the Canadians can't handle it. It doesn't get any more pressure-packed than Canada-Russia at the Olympics on home soil. The pressure could prove to be stifling.
"I think there's going to be butterflies [Wednesday]," Babcock said. "I think that's why we're in this sport. You gotta be a little activated [Wednesday]. It's not like I have to do anything to get excited. They're going to be excited. I'll make sure to tell them, 'Don't blow it all out in warm-up, for crying out loud.'"
3. Speed skills: Team USA gave Canada fits with its speed in Sunday's win. Well, it doesn't get any faster than Ovechkin, Semin, Alexander Radulov and the other speed demons from Russia. Team Canada will have problems containing that explosive speed and might give up a number of odd-man breaks.
4. Fatigued Canada: The host team is playing on back-to-back days, and although nobody is pretending Germany presented much of a challenge Tuesday, Canada nevertheless had to put in 60 minutes. These players have played a ton of hockey this season in the NHL, and it's hard to believe there won't be any residual effect from the back-to-back games.
Russia will use its fresh legs to try to tire out the Canadians by the time the third period rolls around. Getzlaf didn't think the back-to-back games would be an issue.
"I hope not," he said. "We've all done it in our league for a long time. We've definitely had enough rest throughout this tournament."
The easy win for Canada on Tuesday night did at least allow Babcock to roll four lines and not overplay any of the key players.
5. Motivated Ovechkin: Talk to people who are close to Ovechkin, and they will tell you how badly he wanted to come to Vancouver and not only win Olympic gold for his country but also beat Canada in the process. Of course, there's also his burning desire to top Crosby in anything he can. The second-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh last spring stung for Ovechkin, and what better way to avenge that loss than spoiling the party in Crosby's home Olympics. Don't think for a second Ovechkin isn't frothing at the mouth for the opportunity, and don't be surprised if he delivers one of the greatest performances of his career Wednesday.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.
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