There have already been enough unnecessary “Miracle on Ice” references ahead of Saturday’s match-up between the U.S. and Russia. An American win in their second game of the Olympic tournament won’t help end any Cold Wars; it will, however, provide further confidence in a side that expects to leave Sochi with a gold medal — four years after coming within an overtime goal of winning one.
The U.S. has known since July that their second game would be against the Russians and likely would be 60-minute battle with the top seed in Group A on the line. Seven months later, that’s still the case. And after an impressive 7-1 win over Slovakia on Thursday, the Americans know what’s in store for them.
“They have extraordinary skill and talent, Malkin and Ovechkin and Datsyuk, Semin and Kovalchuk,” said U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma. “They have extraordinary skill, elite skill, and that's something that we have to be keenly aware of and know about their team. We'll be seeing maybe a situation where we have the match-up, so we do have the ability to maybe follow them a little bit more closely on the ice with our match-ups.”
Speaking of match-ups, the Americans changed up their defense pairings at practice on Friday, putting Ryans McDonagh and Suter together, along with Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, who play together for Bylsma with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Those are two shutdown pairings, though the Ryans inspire more confidence in containing the skillful Russian forwards. Orpik’s lack of fleet-footedness could turn into a nightmare on the wider ice.
Russia started quick against Slovenia, scoring twice in the opening 3:54 of the first period en route to a 5-2 victory. Inspired by the pressure to win gold and the raucous home crowds they’ll see in each of their games in the tournament, the U.S. will be expecting a strong start from their opponents.
Saturday’s game will be just like what the U.S. team faced four years ago in Vancouver when they beat Canada in the preliminary round 5-3 to clinch their group.
“It’s like playing a road game in the NHL where the crowd’s hostile where you know that you’re going to have to beat the other team when they’re at the best,” said David Backes. “They’re going to have a lot of momentum or emotion behind them they’re going to be playing their butts off and when they need a bump the crowd’s going to go crazy and give them a bump.
“We need to stomach all that and make sure that we’re prepared for it and know that when we think they’re down and out they’ve probably got a little more left.”
The American counterattack worked wonders against Slovakia. When Russia can throw the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Semin, and Alex Radulov at you at any given point, the play of Bylsma’s shutdown pairings will be vital.
Beyond the blue line, Jonathan Quick will once again be in net, making it his job to lose from here on out. There was a thought that Bylsma would split the duties in the opening two games for the U..S., but Quick was solid enough to give the coaching staff the confidence to hand him the reigns going forward. He'll face Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“He’s one of those guys who’s all business,” said Quick’s Los Angeles Kings teammate Dustin Brown. “He’s not one of these goalies who gets really excited when he makes a big save, and I think that translates to him off the ice as well.”
It's going to be a good measuring stick game for the U.S. and a final tryout for certain players as the medal round approaches. Despite the changes, Bylsma emphasized the need to keep their game on the ice the same.
"Our message today is the same. We gotta keep moving forward, and keep playing and keep playing our style, our tough to play against, abrasive style. It’s going to be never more evident then tomorrow in the game against Russia.”
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