Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Radulov of Russia face Canada in the quarterfinals Wednesday night. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
With all the hand-wringing that has been going on in Canada these days regarding the men’s Olympic hockey team, I was struck by a thought: Has anybody thought to check in with the Russians about pressure?
After all, the matchup many people saw as the gold medal game will now send one elite program home without even sniffing hardware. Sure, that could be Canada, but it could also be Russia, which draws the host team as a ‘reward’ for winning its pool.
The Russians have looked good so far, but not great; their final pool game against the Czechs was highlighted by Alex Ovechkin’s thunderous hit on Jaromir Jagr and Evgeni Malkin’s two goals, but the outcome of the game was largely undecided most of the way through and the Czechs outplayed the Russians for long stretches early on.
While firepower will be the talk of tonight’s tilt, Canada’s best strategy may be to bring some kerosene.
That is to say, the best Russians also tend to be the most mercurial and getting under their skin certainly wouldn’t hurt the Canadian cause.
I’d like to see the likes of Mike Richards, Brenden Morrow and even Rick Nash throw their collective weight around, slamming Malkin, Ovie and especially Ilya Kovalchuk at every opportunity. I don’t think the Russians will cower because of this, but they will likely lash out after a while.
Ovie is well-known as a guy who loves to hit, but hates getting hit (note the effectiveness of San Jose’s Douglas Murray against him), Malkin once fought Henrik Zetterberg, while Kovy had a running beef with Ian White last season – and none of those players are exactly Steve Ott when it comes to causing under-the-skin irritation.
Jaw, prod and poke the Big 3 as much as possible and at least one of them is going to end up in the penalty box for retaliating pretty quickly. And a boxed Ovie is an ineffective Ovie.
A physical contest also benefits Canada not because they’re stronger than the Russians (the Big 3 average 6-foot-2, 216 pounds), but because of a critical strategy error the European brain trust made even before the tourney started. The Russians, like many other Euro nations, brought eight defensemen and 12 forwards – the Canadians went seven and 13 – a choice that keeps blueline pairs together, but also leaves them exposed to injuries up front.
And wouldn’t you know it, a key forward went down against the Czechs. Sergei Zinovjev, a center from the Kontinental League, had his ankle demolished when Boston’s David Krejci was hit from behind and landed on the Salavat Ufa pivot. That leaves the Russians with just three centers for the showdown against Canada. And while Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Fedorov are a fantastic trio if you only have three centers, Fedorov is 40 years old with approximately 1,500 pro games under his belt.
If I’m Canada, I hit that guy. A lot.
AS GOOD AS GREISS
The San Jose Sharks had a lot of players at the Olympics, but I think the inclusion of one Shark in particular will help the team down the stretch. Despite winning no games in Vancouver, goaltender Thomas Greiss got three starts in the German net and saw a lot of pucks in the process from top competition.
Since Evgeni Nabokov is on pace for 70 appearances in a compressed NHL schedule, having a game-tested Greiss, who can jump in for a couple games down the stretch and not be rusty, is a nice cushion for the Sharks – especially since none of those German losses count in the NHL standings.
THN PUCK PANEL - CANADA AND RUSSIA'S DATE WITH DESTINY
Host Edward Fraser sits down with editor in chief Jason Kay and writer Adam Proteau to discuss... The Canada-Russia showdown… Whether or not Canada should play a defensive game versus the powerhouse Russians… Who has the edge in goal… And which team has the best chance of scoring an upset in the other quarterfinal matchups. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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