BRATISLAVA – What started in 1954 as a colossal upset has become arguably the greatest international rivalry in the history of hockey. Any Canada-Russia game is met with great anticipation, and the teams rarely disappoint.
From that 7-2 gold-medal win in 1954 by the Soviet Union, to retribution the following year, from the incredible 1972 Summit Series and 1987 Canada Cup right up to the quarter-finals meeting in Vancouver last year and Russia’s stunning comeback at the U20s just a few months ago, the nations have played many unforgettable battles.
But history ends as soon as the puck is dropped and the teams go at it one more time tonight at Orange Arena. The winner will be the final qualifier for tomorrow’s semi-finals, and the loser goes home. Such has been the case the last two meetings, last year at the quarters in Germany, won by Russia in convincing 5-2 fashion, and earlier in 2010 at the Olympics, won decisively by Canada, 7-3.
There is but one member of Team Canada from that Olympic gold team, captain Rick Nash, while the Russians have fully a dozen players from that 7-3 loss in the lineup tonight. They didn’t get the job done then, and they are without several star players such as Yevgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar, but on the other hand Canada’s tremendous win has only Nash here now.
Recall, though, the hulking Nash played the right wing at the request of coach Mike Babcock, staring Alexander Ovechkin eye to eye every shift for much of the game, reducing the strength and effectiveness of the Russian star and demoralizing the rest of the team in the process. Will Canada’s coach Ken Hitchcock take a page from Babcock’s playbook and do the same?
Canada’s John Tavares is tied for the lead in scoring with nine points this year, and he is also tied for second in goals with five, but much of Canada’s offence has been spread throughout the lineup. Only five skaters have yet to register a point.
On the flip side, Ovechkin is without a point in his first two games, coming over to Slovakia just a few days ago after being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. More surprisingly, Ilya Kovalchuk is without a goal (although he does have five assists). These two giants of the game have had disappointing seasons so far. An early exit from Slovakia would mark this as a double shocker in the world of hockey.
Canada has scored 27 goals in six games, the most of any country, while Russia has just 18. Canada has also given up only 12 to Russia’s 18, but as fans know, early games are often to be ignored in assessing Russia’s chances when elimination is on the line. The team seems to be able to turn on the afterburners when the time is at hand.
Goaltending is Canada’s Achilles heel. James Reimer was solid and impressive in the early going but gave up a few questionable goals. Jonathan Bernier has been impressive, but can he withstand the Russians? Canada doesn’t need sensational goaltending to win, but it does need the goalie not to give up a softie which could deflate the rest of the team and give the Russians confidence. Yevgeni Nabokov (now injured) and Konstantin Barulin have been inconsistent but have likely been a stronger pairing.
Furthermore, the two rosters shape up as past and present in some ways. Russia, as mentioned, has a dozen players from Vancouver, including Ovechkin and Kovalchuk alongside Maxim Afinogenov, Alexander Radulov, and Alexei Morozov. Canada, meanwhile, has several players almost certain to be top contenders for Sochi, notably Jordan Eberle, Tavares, and Jeff Skinner.
It’s too bad this game couldn’t have been played one game later, when all aspects of the games are raised one notch further on the intensity scale, but any Canada-Russia game is a welcome one. On paper, the experience of Russia certainly makes it a favourite, but as anyone knows, discount the Canadians at your peril.