HELSINKI – The first game between Russia and the US was one of the best games in the tournament, so far, so you can expect their quarter-final game to be even better. In one game, anything is possible as the saying goes. Also, the whole tournament hangs on that one game. The winner travels to Stockholm and can book games through Sunday, the loser goes home.
If the first game was a dress rehearsal, Americans feel they’re ready for their opening night.
“We’ve learned what we did wrong, and the quarterfinal is the big game, maybe the most important game in the tournament. We know our strength is the transition game and to move it up quickly. In our last game against Russia, we were too busy puck watching, and got caught a little flat-footed,” says Team USA captain Paul Stastny.
The U.S. has played well in recent years, but for some reason, hasn’t been able to take the jump to the top-4. The Americans’ last medal, a bronze, is from 2004, and in the last ten years, Team USA has finished outside the playoff stage twice, and got ousted in the quarterfinal stage six times.
And yet, USA dominated the under-18 tournament, and is the reigning under-20 champion as well. But in the World Championship, US hasn’t been able to get over the last hurdle.
“I don’t know if I know how to answer that, but I know that a lot of other countries train for this, and we train for the Stanley Cup playoffs, and losing there is a letdown. I feel good about this team, though,” said the St. Louis Blues’ forward TJ Oshie, who joined the team this week, but made it to Helsinki in time to play in the game against Slovakia.
“I’ve definitely got my legs underneath me, and feel pretty normal now. It’s going to be tough, but coming out of the playoffs, I’m ready to go. A couple of nights’ rest was good for me,” he added.
Both teams have added new players to their lineups since that game last Tuesday. Team USA has Oshie, and Alex Galchenyuk, Russia added Alexander Ovechkin, who made it to Helsinki on Wednesday.
“I hope they didn’t come here for just two games. It takes a couple of skates to used to the bug rink, but I think they’ll be contributing [on Thursday],” said Stastny.
Oshie didn’t play in the first Russia game, and hasn’t watched it, either, but he’s got a good idea of what the Americans need to do better on Thursday.
“We just have to play our own game, the north-south game, not east-west like we did last time. We know Russian players can move the puck like not many people can. We tried to make too many plays on the bluelines, and that created turnovers,” Oshie said.
He also thinks a little more physical style would help the Americans.
“It’s important to get a couple of big hits early, they gets the guys going on the bench, and holds the Russians back,” he said.
“It’s not easy, though, as I learned when I got a penalty five seconds into my first shift,” he said, laughing.
“It’s hard to play physical hockey on the big sheet, it’s more of a puck possession game here,” he said.
In goal, it'll be John Gibson, the talented 19-year-old who captured tournament MVP, Best Goaltender, and all-star goalie honours in the American gold medal run at the 2013 World Juniors. He gets the nod over Ben Bishop, the Tampa Bay Lightning goalie, whose save percentage is 87.8. Bishop lost 4-1 in the round-robin finale versus Slovakia.
Gibson previously earned a 4-1 win over host Finland and blanked Germany 3-0.
Oshie’s ready, Galchenyuk’s ready, and Paul Stastny - the team’s leading scorer with four goals and nine points in seven games - is ready. Stastny was asked whether he’d consider a U.S. win over Russia a “Miracle on ice”, Russian being the reigning champion and all.
“There’s too much parity in international hockey these days, there are no Miracles on Ice,” he said.
Just hard work. And north-south hockey.