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Preview: Russia vs. USA

May 8, 16:15 at PostFinance Arena, Berne

08-05-09
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PostFinance Arena Berne  Switzerland
The Americans will likely have their hands full trying to contain Russia. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHoF-IIHF Images.

RUSSIA

 

What to Watch
When these teams met in the Qualification Round, Russia breezed past Team USA. The Cold War is a thing of the past but when Russia and the United States clash, memories of 1980 are inevitably conjured up. Indeed, the Americans will need a “miracle” of their own to beat a fearsome Russian squad this afternoon.

 

Who to Watch
Alexander Radulov, the subject of off-ice drama in his controversial departure from Nashville Predators of the NHL to Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League. Radulov has represented Russia twice before but saw limited ice. This time, he’s a core contributor with three goals and eight points. The same can be said for defenseman Vitali Atyushov. In two previous tournaments, he tallied five assists in 16 games. Here in Berne, Atyushov has two goals and six points. After nearly three disappointing seasons in North America, Alexander Perezhogin returned to Russia, where he now stars on Ufa alongside Radulov. Of course, Ilya Kovalchuk remains the team's offensive leader.

 

Strengths
What has been interesting to watch in the last two years has been the stoicism of Vyacheslav Bykov behind the bench. The coach, his methods and temperament, reflect positively or negatively on a team. Since 2000, Russia has had so many reconfigurations behind the bench, all professing to restore the glory of Russian ice hockey. In several instances, you would be hard-pressed to understand what that meant. Bykov has come in and restored the national team to its proper standing among the elite nations in hockey. His decision to resign his position with CsKA and focus full-time on national team duties means this resurgence could last for some time. At last, coaching is a strength for Team Russia.

 

Goaltending
Russia has struggled over the years to produce goaltenders that are World Championship caliber. For years, it was Maxim Sokolov who had the starting spot (2001-06). Since 2006, new goaltenders have been given the chance to win a job. Alexander Eremenko has been on the last three World Championship teams. He’s proven more than competent, but with Phoenix Coyote netminder Ilya Bryzgalov accepting the chance to return to the national team for the first time since 2000, Eremenko has been relegated to second-string status.

 

 

USA

 

What to Watch
The last time these teams met was at the 2004 IIHF World Championship in the Czech Republic. A third period shorthanded goal by Chris Drury gave the United States a 3-2 win in the Qualification Round. Make of it what you will, but prior to this year’s encounter, out of the last three times these teams have met (2000, 2003, 2004), the United States has won twice. If the recent past is any indication, this game promises to be a close affair.

 

Who to Watch
Quietly, Kyle Okposo is earning his stripes with Team USA. Okposo has a goal and three assists in seven games and leads the team in plus/minus at +4. Okposo was drafted seventh overall by the New York Islanders in the 2006 NHL Draft. Okposo starred for the University of Minnesota for almost two seasons before signing with the New York Islanders. In his first full campaign in 2008-09, he scored 18 goals and 39 points in 65 games. Watching Okposo at the NHL level, you can see him getting better and his confidence growing. Okposo has good offensive skills and battles hard in corners and along the boards. He has star potential and could be a perennial 30+ goal scorer.

 

Strengths
Key veterans. While possessing a group of amazing youngsters, Team USA has veteran leadership that has been important in the success of the squad here at the World Championships. Jason Blake made his debut at the 2000 IIHF World Championship, and from there he’s grown into quite a solid citizen in the NHL. Ryan Suter may only be only 24, but he’s a veteran of the World Championships. Suter has represented the USA four times and his performance has improved each time. With Russia’s forwards swarming around the American net this afternoon, Suter must lead by example in ensuring their scoring chances are low percentage tries.

 

Goaltending
Robert Esche has represented Team USA at the World Championships three times. In those appearances, they have finished 5th, 4th, and 6th respectively. With a win over Finland in the quarterfinal, the Americans are sure to finish no lower than 4th here in Bern. Against the Finns, Esche faced 20 shots alone in the first period. Esche will likely get the start for Team USA for two reasons. As the most experienced among his peers, Esche has been in big games over the years. Another is that as he plays in the Kontinental Hockey League, Esche would be familiar with many of the shooters on Team Russia.

 

JOHN SANFUL

 

 

 

 

 

 

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