Team Russia took care of business Thursday afternoon in the World Cup of Hockey to set up another showdown in an epic rivalry.
Saturday night will mark the 146th time Canada has met Russia (or in its previous incarnation, the Soviet Union) in international hockey. You might be surprised to learn that through all the Olympics, World Championships, World Junior Championships, World Under-18 Championships, Canada/World Cups and Summit Series – including the one in 1974 against between the Soviets and Canadian players in the World Hockey Association – the Soviets lead the series 77-57-10 with one no decision. (That was, of course, in the 1987 World Junior in Piestany when both teams were disqualified because of a bench-clearing brawl.)
Some have been epics, others not so much. But there are no two countries with as much rich history between them in this game than Canada and Russia. So it is only fitting that they’ll meet again in the World Cup of Hockey semifinal Saturday night. Russia clinched that meeting with its 3-0 win over Finland in their last game of the preliminary round. The win deprived hockey fans of what would have been an intriguing game between Canada and Team North America, but Canada and Russia is always a good consolation prize.
Imagine that, people were actually cheering against another meeting between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, another chapter in the cold war on ice between these two countries. They’d better not disappoint. And they probably won’t. Canada enters the team as the decided favorite because they entered the tournament with that status and have done nothing to unseat themselves of it since it began almost a week ago.
But it’s a one-game meeting, eh? And, you know, anything can happen. Perhaps nobody knows that better than Evgeny Kuznetsov, who stepped in as Russia’s No. 1 center between Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko when Pavel Datsyuk missed the Finland game. Kuznetsov has only played against Canada twice, but they were doozies. In the gold medal game of the 2011 World Junior Championship, the Russians overcame a 3-0 deficit with five third-period goals to win the gold medal. Kuznetsov had three assists in that game and was joined by current teammates Tarasenko, Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev and Artemi Panarin on that team. The next year in the semifinal, the Russians took a 6-1 lead on Canada, only to give up four third-period goals to hang on for a 6-5 win. Kuznetsov had three goals and an assist in that game en route to being named MVP of the tournament.
“It’s always nice to play against Canada,” Kuznetsov said. “The whole world knows the best players play here. We just have to accept the challenge and show these guys what we’ve got.”
And of course there’s Sid vs. Ovie, Chapter Whatever. Both players will spend the next two days downplaying the importance of it. And for Ovechkin, it’s probably a good thing, since Crosby’s teams have pretty much taken Ovechkin’s to the cleaners in every meaningful competition. Crosby’s Penguins have won both second-round playoff series against Ovechkin’s Capitals and both those victories were part of Stanley Cup championships for Pittsburgh. In international competition, the two have gone nose-to-nose and it hasn’t even been close. The Canadians are 3-0-0 in those games and have outscored the Russians by a 19-5 margin, once in the World Juniors, once in the World Championship and once in the Olympics. In fact, Crosby has been on some kind of tear wearing the maple leaf on his sweater. Going back to Canada’s loss during the preliminary round of the Vancouver Olympics, Crosby is 22-0-0 with Canada since then.
“It’s Canada against us and it’s not about two players,” Ovechkin said. “Of course it will be special, but it’s most important to get a victory and move forward. It’s two teams with a great history. It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be a great game.”
Ovechkin hopes that familiarity with the Canadian players from meeting them so much in the NHL. “We’re not going to be seeing them for the first time,” Ovechkin said. “We play against them almost every day.”
But it will be anything but just an everyday game for the Russian and Canadian teams. If Datsyuk comes back into the lineup, it could be the last time we ever see him play on a North American ice surface after a Hall of Fame career. These games are the kind that forms legacies. Ovechkin has won World Championships with Russia, but he has yet to come up with a meaningful victory in a best-on-best competition.
When asked whether this would be a big moment in his career, Ovechkin said, “I have too many big moments. It’s up to us to beat Canada and be in the final.”