(photo: REUTERS/Petr Josek)
By Andrew Imber
When the United States hits the ice against Russia, tomorrow, there will be a lot on the line. First place in the group will almost certainly go to the winner of the important tilt, and with that comes a bye into the Quarter Finals. Also, if either team is able to put together a resounding victory, they will be in the running for the top seed, which ensures avoiding the second and third seeded teams until the Gold Medal Game.
With the other two groups finished with two games, things are starting to become clearer. Currently, it appears as though the winner of the Canada/Finland game will be a major player for the top seed. The winner of that game will finish 3-0 in round robin, and will have a goal differential of at least positive nine. This means that the United States is within easy striking distance with a win against the Russians (they would need to beat Slovenia by a few goals, unless Canada/Finland results in a blowout). Sweden will be in the picture, as well, but will need to beat Latvia by a large margin.
First things first – the focus on Russia. Though they played a surprisingly close game against huge underdog Slovenia, the crowd will be a major force for the home side. The Russian roster features a major blend of NHL and KHL talent, meaning their chemistry should be improving with sixty minutes under their belts. It is a team that features a lot of high end skill, but may lack overall depth.
Russia’s noteable NHL’ers – Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin, Pavel Datsyuk, Vladimir Tarasenko, Andrei Markov, Slava Voynov, Semyon Varlamov, Sergei Bobrovsky
The Good: It’s still early in the tournament, so the mix of NHL and KHL talent could remain an issue for the home team. Rumors are swirling that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in the house, meaning the pressure will be turned up to ’11’. A quick start by the United States could turn the fans in a hurry. Russia was anything but dominant in their 5-2 victory over 1,000-1 Gold Medal underdog Slovenia. The bottom six forwards of Russia are solid but not spectacular, and their defense is brutally thin. A lot of their high end talent is known for one-way offensive hockey, and their best two-way forward (Datsyuk) might not be 100%. The United States should be able to exploit some questions on Russia’s back end.
The Bad: Russia has quite a few game breakers. Unlike Slovakia, who really had nobody (except arguably Hossa) capable of taking over a game, the Russians have multiple players who can turn the game on its head in an instant. Ovechkin and Malkin are two of the most dynamic players in the World, Ilya Kovalchuk will remind fans why he’s still relevant, and guys like Markov and Voynov can bring it from the point. If he’s even close to healthy, Datsyuk is a problem at both ends of the ice. The home crowd has the ability to give this team a lot of momentum if they start to score in bunches. Though it was a question mark at one time, Varlamov and Bobrovsky give the Russians one of the better one-two punches in goal at these games.
The Bottom Line: This will almost certainly be the biggest turning point of these games for the United States. A win over the host nation sets up the US for a bye into what should be a manageable Quarter Finals match up, and could possibly set them on the opposite side of the table from Canada (should they win their group). On the other end of the spectrum, a loss puts the US in danger of having to play the extra game, and even if not, gives them what would be a more difficult Quarter Finals, and almost certainly one of the bigger powers by the Semis. Can the United States win it all with a loss against Russia? Absolutely. But the numbers (odds) will be a lot more friendly with a win tomorrow.