CALGARY – Sweden spoiled the party. By defeating Russia 4-3 in overtime at the end of the preliminary round, it became impossible for Canada and Russia to meet in the gold-medal game this year, so fans have to have their dream finals a game early. Incredibly, eight of 19 previous meetings between the two countries (as Russia, not the Soviet Union) have been to decide gold, each side winning four. Here is a look at what to expect tonight for what should be another classic.
Canada’s Scott Wedgewood and Russia’s Andrei Vasilevski have been great so far, Vasilevski at his best yesterday against the Czechs in the quarter-finals. Wedgewood’s last game, New Year’s Eve versus the U.S., was also his best. Neither goalie has any experience at this level in this kind of game, so whichever goalie is able to keep his cool – and make the key saves – will likely be the winner.
Yesterday’s incredible Russia-Czech Republic game was notable for two things – great goaltending and a complete absence of physical play. The Russians had better be prepared to be hit every time they touch the puck because the Canadians will finish their checks and try to dominate using the body.
Both teams are 1-2 in power play and penalty killing, but both have also been prone to lazy and sloppy penalties. The team that stays out of the box will improve its chances for victory greatly as both teams have potent power plays. Canada has six goals on just 14 chances while Russia has five in 12.
Canada’s defencemen are big, strong, fast. Russia’s defencemen are skilled and move the puck well. The biggest dilemma for both sides is to deal with speed. In Russia’s case, that speed will come off the rush. In Canada’s case, it will be from puck possession in the offensive end.
Russian forwards always look so fast, their sweaters ballooning from the wind they whip up as they head up ice. But it is when they play as individuals that they are most easily defeated, as we have seen from captain and scoring leader Yevgeni Kuznetsov. He has played five games. In four, he has been close to invisible. In one, he tallied nine points. In truth, although he has the skills to win a game on his own, the more he tries as much the more Team Canada will be only too happy to shut him down. Canada has more balanced scoring and a more workmanlike effort that doesn’t look as flashy but has been very effective.
Don Hay coached Canada to gold in 1995. Valeri Bragin coached Russia to 2011 gold and 2005 silver (losing to Canada). If Canada gets the lead and Hay has his team sit back, Russia will win the game no questions asked. Bragin has to prepare his team to take the man and expect to be taken, hit and be hit. Will either coach try to shut down the other team’s big line by line matching? Canada is the home team and will have last change, so there’s a slight advantage there. Slight.
There is no doubt Canada will be energized by the fans, but make no mistake – so will the Russians. Historically Russia has played better in Canada than in Russia or any other country. Think 2011 World Juniors (Buffalo, but an almost entirely pro-Canada crowd), 2008 Worlds (Quebec City), 2003 World Juniors (Halifax), all the way back to the 1972 Summit Series. The crowd will be huge, noisy, intimidating, and a boon for both sides in, of course, very different ways.