So, we meet again...

RUS-FRA quarter-final preview

22.05.2014
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Russia's Kirill Petrov and France's Antonin Manavian battle for the puck in last year's surprising victory for France. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images

Russia may be a favourite to win the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, but of all teams it should know not to feel too cocky about France.

To make a long story short and not hold you from more pressing business, let’s just say it straight out that Russia will win. There you are, free to go and do whatever, the quick and dirty analysis is over.

Besides, please note that we still haven’t said anything about last year’s shocking 2-1 defeat at the hands of these very French, vengeance for which is undoubtedly the main theme of this affair. It is, in any case, still on the mind of Antoine Roussel, France’s only active NHLer, the second-best scorer in Minsk 2014 and, of course, the man who scored the game-winning goal on Vasili Koshechkin in that memorable contest in Helsinki.

In the NHL, Roussel, who has been residing in Quebec since the age of 16, is mostly known as a sturdy and tough-as-nails agitator, but here he has been nothing short of a star and one of the main reasons for France’s spectacular performance thus far.

“That win was historic and a turning point for us,” said Roussel of the 2013 game. “After that, we started believing in themselves and began growing as a team. So, if the Russians want to avenge that, let them try. “

Roussel, for all his admirable confidence, knows that this will be a distinctly different Russian team facing him here. The difference between 2013 and 2014 goes beyond the mere fact that only five witnesses of last year’s disaster remain on Russia’s roster. These Russians are quite simply much stronger in all areas of the ice, including defense (which allowed only seven goals in seven Preliminary Round contests) and special teams. As for the goalies, a source of much consternation and distraction in Helsinki, this is were Russia has arguably been better than anyone else in the tournament. Sergei Bobrovski, named the starter for the remainder of the World Championship, has been stellar in net and a source of quiet confidence in the dressing room.

The forwards have given little cause for concern, except, of course, Alexander Ovechkin’s injury. That was a bit of a blow, considering how well the captain HAS cooperated with his linemates Sergei Plotnikov and Viktor Tikhonov. The latter two have been among the tournament’s most pleasant surprises, and Plotnikov’s takeaway followed by a ridiculous behind-the-back pass against Belarus was easily one of the most beautiful scoring plays in Minsk.

Ovechkin’s readiness is still a big question mark but if this Russian national team cannot beat France with a hobbled Ovi or even without him altogether, it won’t be in a position to offer legitimate excuses.

Yevgeni Malkin, who joined the team from the Pittsburgh Penguins in time for its final Preliminary Round game, looked great individually but wasn’t quite on the same page with his linemates just yet.

“I’ll be honest, it was a bit hard,” said Malkin after the Belarus game. “Especially the first period. We will have to watch the film and make some kind of an analysis, but I hope that it will be easier the next time. Maybe, we tried to pass too much at times and should have shot more.”

Well, if Sochi has taught us anything it’s that the only linemate Malkin positively cannot find chemistry with is Ovechkin. As for Nikolai Kulyomin, they go back all the way to their native Magnitogorsk and a couple of extra practices have surely shored up whatever communications issues there were.

Of course, it also should be noted that in the last two games, after Russia had clinched the first place in Group B, its feared offense looked decidedly more pedestrian, especially in the opening stages. There wasn’t much to be excited about in the Germany and Belarus games, as the old Russian bane of wanting to win without trying too hard had resurfaced. And it wasn’t just the fans and the reporters who noted that.

“It was difficult to motivate the players for a meaningless game,” said head coach Oleg Znarok in his blunt manner. “It was evident at the morning skate that they were too relaxed. We will need to learn from this.”

That they do, as complacency in a game against the French can be deadly. Roussel is right in saying that his team has grown compared to last year, which is something the Canadians and the Slovaks have found out to their chagrin.

“We used to come to the World Championships hoping to beat the team that just got promoted and avoid relegation,” said France’s Canada-born head coach Dave Henderson. “But here, we have beaten Canada and almost tied Sweden in regulation and we don’t want to stop there.”

The French do have something to throw at Russia, indeed. Roussel’s line has been particularly great for Les Bleus in Minsk. Stephane Da Costa, another on of the tournament’s top scorers, is not a stranger to the NHL, even though he has been spending most of his time in the Ottawa Senators farm team in Binghamton. The Parisian with French, Portuguese and Polish roots has found perfect harmony on the team’s top line, with Roussel and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare from Sweden’s AIK Skelleftea. In the game against Denmark, whom Les Bleus contrived to blow out by the score of 6-2, their fearsome threesome combined for 11 points.

France’s biggest problem is defence, which was aptly demonstrated in the 5-4 loss to Czech Republic, in which they squandered a 3-0 lead. But that happened without their top goalie, the 38-year-old former NHLer and Ovechkin’s ex-teammate Cristobal Huet. It is not usually a great tactic to substitute solid defense for great goaltending, but Huet has been so good in Minsk, that few people are doubting that on any given day he could prove to be an unsolvable puzzle for the likes of Ovechkin and Malkin.

If this happens, it will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. But at least the Russians won’t be able to say that nobody had warned them.

SLAVA MALAMUD

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