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Game Preview: Canada vs Russia

February 24, 2010

Game Time: 6:30 PM CST
TV/Radio: CNBC (I assume.)

Stat Pack:

Canada
Russia
Record (W-OTW-L-OTL)
2-1-1-0 2-0-1-0
PP 26.31% (5 of 19) 12.50% (2 of 16)
PK 91.66% (11 of 12) 92.31% (12 of 13)

I understand there are other hockey games today, and hey, one of them even includes the USA. But let’s be honest here–sure, the USA is up against Switzerland and sure, it’s gonna be a good, tough game, but at the beginning of the Olympics, back when all the prognostication was going on, it was a potential match-up between Canada and Russia that had everyone salivating.

Only no one thought that match-up could come so soon, for a quarterfinal that means one of these countries will not have the chance to medal.

Think about that for a moment. Canada and Russia were heavy favorites heading into the winter games, and they were supposed to be duking it out for gold. Instead, Russia lost in overtime to Slovakia and Canada could not get its NHL All-Stars to click against a strong goaltender and a physical USA team, so here we are.

This is the great thing about hockey, isn’t it? Absolutely anything can happen.

Now I know there’s only been 3 or 4 games played by these two countries, but heading into tonight’s match-up here are a few things (you’ll forgive the North American bias) to watch out for:

Russia’s Offense

For Russia, the surprise isn’t necessarily in where they ranked–they still got a bye into the quarterfinals, after all, and still led their group at the end of the day–but in how Slovakia was able to stifle their explosive offense and hold them to one goal in regulation. Putting Ovechkin and Malkin may have been the answer, as the pair combined for two of the goals scored against the Czech Republic in the next game, but when their power play unit boasts of players like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Malkin, Semin, and Gonchar (seriously–think about that for a second) and all they have to show for it is 2 goals in 16 chances, then we’re either heading for an explosive blowout like no other or something’s just not clicking.

Canada’s Slumpbuster

Speaking of clicking, has Mike Babcock finally solved the conundrum that has plagued Penguins fans for five years? As it turns out, the solution is also the answer to a conundrum that has plagued Flames fans for just about as long–it’s too bad Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby will never leave their clubs for the other’s (Actually, no, it isn’t too bad.), but it is a damn good sight to see them playing together on the international stage and making beautiful music. Or something. But taking Rick Nash out of the line and inserting Eric Staal (by the way, did you hear he has brothers?) seems to be the final piece in the puzzle. Their line combined for 3 goals yesterday.

Unless it was just because they were playing Germany.

The Goalie Controversy?

After an admittedly weak game on Sunday, Martin Brodeur’s starting position has been usurped by home crowd favorite Roberto Luongo. Babcock wasted no time anointing Luongo his starter against Russia, and by all means, Luongo does have a 2-0-0-0 record while Brodeur’s is 0-1-0-1. Some may cry foul, because who benches the winningest goaltender of all time, but give Babcock credit for ignoring that kind of politics in making his decision.

That being said, though, it would be interesting to look at the context of those performances. Luongo played well, but against Norway and Germany, neither of which were really ranked high. Brodeur, meanwhile, played against Switzerland and the USA, who face each other today in the quarterfinals today. So what we really have in terms of Canadian goaltending is one goalie that’s played really well against low-ranking teams and another goalie that’s played averagely against higher-ranking teams. How Luongo responds to Russia would be very interesting.

Nabokov vs the Burger Line

One of the reasons, they say, that USA was able to best Canada last Sunday was due to Brodeur’s NHL teammates turning against him. Former Devil Brian Rafalski knew Brodeur’s habits, and it led to at least one of his goals. In the same manner, the Thornton-Heatley-Marleau line would be up against Evgeni Nabokov and one does wonder if they would do the same against Nabokov. Of course, Nabokov could just as easily turn the tables around on them, knowing what their own tendencies are.

Blackhawks, Represent!

You know it isn’t just homerism anymore when even CTV/MSNBC/whatever other station’s announcers and color commentators are noting the strong play of Blackhawks players. While maybe Brent Seabrook has shied away a little, trailing all other Canadian defensemen in ice time with 39:21 (Doughty and Pronger are next at 68:11), Duncan Keith’s 79:25 is second only to Shea Weber’s 83:30, and though only 3 assists are credited to him, he’s been instrumental in setting up plays for the team thus far.

Jonathan Toews, meanwhile, centering the third or fourth line for Canada and 9th among forwards for ice time, leads the team with 5 assists and leads the Olympics with a +7 rating. Mike Babcock has even gone on record as to say his favorite player so far is “whoever’s playing on Jonathan Toews’ line.” Captain Serious, originally an outside shot to make the team and thought to be the 13th forward, brought his incredible work ethic to the winter games and it is definitely showing.

Whatever happens tonight, the Blackhawks’ Canadian players have given us fans every reason to be proud.

We’ll still take a win over Russia, though, so go get ’em, boys.

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