Preview: Russia vs. Canada
Matchup: Russia vs. Canada, 16.15, Stadthalle
Russia: The Canada-Russia rivalry has been on hiatus at the senior level the last few years, mostly because the Russians have failed to make it deep into big international tournaments such as the IIHF World Championship and the World Cup. At the World Juniors, it's been more even. Canada beat Russia this past January, and in January 2003 the Russians won gold with a come-from-behind win over the Canadians. But the last time the big boys played was in 2003 when Canada prevailed 5-2 in a Qualifying Round game. This year, the Russians have a new coach, new attitude, and new energy. Goalie Maxim Sokolov has been solid and sometimes spectacular, most importantly in the shootout win over the Finns two days ago. The attack is rich with veteran performers and star names, yet the best part of the Russian offense has come from three young stars. Pavel Datsyuk is having an MVP-like tournament with three goals and six points. Tied with him for the team lead in points are teen whiz Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. Another impressive aspect of the team's play is its defense, having allowed just 13 goals in seven games. The names are mostly familiar—Alexander Karpovtsev, Andrei Markov, Dmitri Kalinin—but their team play has been a breath of fresh air for the Russian program. Although Russia has played four games against the weaker teams, it has performed at its best when the most was on the line: a 3-3 tie with Slovakia, a 2-1 victory over the Czechs, and the 4-3 quarter-final win over the Finns. They have big-time game in their sticks, so it will be a matter of whether they can perform at that high level again today.
Martin Brodeur stopped Ziggy Palffy on a penalty shot but allowed four goals besides
Canada: In some ways, Canada played its best game of the tournament last time out, against the Slovaks; in other ways, their performance exposed their flaws too readily. It was a dramatic 5-4 win in one of the year's best games, but goalie Martin Brodeur was horrible in goal with the exception of two big saves, one on a second-period penalty shot, the other a blocker stop in the final minute to preserve the win. Perhaps he's rusty, or perhaps he just needs a little pick-me-up insult like "he's been playing with a piano on his back" (apologies to Bob McKenzie and Wayne Gretzky) to get him going. On most shots, he has looked like Martin Brodeur, but when the puck has been around his crease (and behind the end red line), he has looked altogether lost. If he plays today like he played against Slovakia, Canada will have little chance of going to its third straight finals. The team's defense in its own end has been splendid, but the defensemen have made one horrible decision after another when they have the puck. Again, unless they step up and move the puck more intelligently, they'll be shaking hands and going home later tonight. The offense has been brilliant for Canada, but it has been remarkably dependent on its top line of Simon Gagne-Joe Thornton-Rick Nash. In the last game, it seemed almost as though coach Marc Habscheid threw out the second, third, and fourth lines only to give the top line a rest. Nash leads the tournament with nine goals and 14 points, and Thornton is right behind with 13 points. Gagne has nine points, and these 36 points represent exactly half the 72 points the team has earned. Their 18 goals is well more than half the 31 that Canada has scored. They have been hands down the best players in the championship, but the team desperately needs another line to contribute some goals. Canada has a star-studded lineup, no question, but it has yet to play a 60-minute, 22-man game worthy of a gold medal. If any team can provide the requisite motivation, though, it's Russia. This should be a battle royale of the highest hockey order.
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