QUEBEC CITY – You can throw all of the numbers and statistics out the window. The winner of the gold medal will be the one that executes better under pressure and demonstrates the greater desire to win. Both teams are excellent in every facet of the game, and perhaps more than any championship game in recent memory, this is truly an evenly-matched finals. Canada could win on home ice; equally, Russia could be champions for the first time since the 1992 Olympics.
Russia has played with added confidence since getting Evgeni Nabokov from the San Jose Sharks. He has provided the team with goaltending it has frequently lacked in big-time situations, but more than ever he’s going to play a pivotal role in today’s game. Canada has scored 48 goals in just eight games, an average of six a game. Naturally, Nabokov is going to have to do better than that.
At the other end, Cam Ward will have to be at his best for Canada. Russia has scored 38 goals in eight games, but the fact that it has ten fewer goals than Canada means little. The Russians have the firepower to explode for a big goal and score in bunches.
Indeed, the guts of the game comes down to each team’s big line versus each team’s goalie. Ward will be facing the Washington Line, composed of Alexander Ovechkin-Alexander Semin-Sergei Fedorov, while Nabokov will face Rick Nash-Ryan Getzlaf-Dany Heatley. These six forwards have been arguably the best six forwards in the tournament, and if one line can dominate – or one goalie shut the other team’s big line down – that will go a long way to determining a winner.
Surprisingly, Canada’s power play has been almost twice as successful as Russia’s having scored 15 extra-man goals to Russia’s nine. Both teams have been excellent on the penalty kill, averaging less than a goal a game against and both have been good at staying out of the box.
At the heart of the matter will be execution. Which team will rise to the challenge and which team will not be able to match the other team’s intensity? The Canadians know the country expects them to win. In the IIHF’s 100th anniversary season, it would only seem “right” if the name Canada were to appear beside the year 2008.
The Russians, however, play better hockey against Canada in Canada than in Russia. It’s as though they feed off the hopes and cheers of Canadian fans and enjoy playing the role of spoiler (away from home) more than than favourite (at home). The crowd will be pro-Canada, of course, but again this can work both ways for both teams.
The Canadians play under pressure every time they put on the sweater of their country. They are expected to win every time, and they expect as much of themselves. It isn’t likely they’ll play badly under pressure. The Russians, in one sense, have nothing to lose, having gone many years without winning and playing in a country (Canada) that hopes it loses.
Coaching might also play a significant role in the game. Canada is the home team and Ken Hitchcock will have the last change, but will he match top line against top line or assign the checkers to the Washington Line to free up the Nash threesome?
Vyacheslav Bykov doesn’t have the resume of Hitchcock, but so far this year in Quebec City he has managed to do something very few Russian coaches have been able to do in the post-Tikhonov era – get his players to play as a team. These Russians are more about passing than end-to-end rushes, and when was the last time one could say that?
Canada is at home. The team has gobs of experience and was champions last year. The Russians have a lineup better than any they’ve had in a long time. They can afford to be loosey-goosey. The IIHF’s 100th anniversary gold-medal game promises to be one for the ages – but right now, it’s too close to call.