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Team USA vs. Russia: Seven things to watch in their Sochi showdown

Greg Wyshynski
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SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 13: Paul Stastny and Alex Ovechkin

SOCHI, Russia – The U.S. and Russia face off in the most highly anticipated game of the Sochi Olympics men’s ice hockey preliminary round on Saturday, beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET (4:30 in Sochi). Here's a look inside the game:

1. What’s At Stake?

Both teams are 1-0 in the tournament, with Russia beating Slovenia, 5-2, and the U.S. trouncing Slovakia, 7-1. The winner of this game would control Group A. The three Group winners and the second-place team with the best record move on to the quarterfinals of the medal round, avoiding having to play an extra qualification game in the next round. Russia closes out against Slovakia (0-2) on Sunday, while the Americans face Slovenia (1-1), which won its first Olympic game ever on Saturday against the Slovaks.

2. Teammates To Enemies

The game features a dozen NHL teammates facing each other on opposing sides of the ice:

- Alex Ovechkin vs. John Carlson (Washington Capitals)

- Evgeni Malkin vs. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin (Pittsburgh Penguins)

- Vladimir Tarasenko vs. David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkrik (St. Louis Blues)

- Slava Voynov vs. Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings)

- Alexei Yemelin vs. Max Pacioretty (Montreal Canadiens)

- Nik Kulemin vs. Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs)

The fact that some of these are defensemen playing against forwards that are also teammates adds to the intrigue. 

3. Russia’s Goal-Scoring Machines

There might not be another team in the Olympic tournament with the offensive weaponry the Russians have in their top two lines. NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin is on a line with Detroit Red Wings puck wizard Datsyuk and Carolina Hurricanes sniper Alex Semin.

The second line? It starts with Pittsburgh Penguins star Malkin at center, flanked by former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk and the dangerous Alex Radulov.

4. The USA Counterpunch

The U.S. has its share of offensive dynamos – watch out for Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane on the larger international ice – but the game might be won or lost on how well the lines defending Russia’s top six are able to generate their own offense. Zach Parise, David Backes and Ryan Callahan will likely match with Ovechkin’s line. The Americans’ best line against Slovakia – Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and TJ Oshie – could have the other key defensive assignment.

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Hockey fans cheer for Russia during a men's ice hockey game against Slovenia at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, …

5. The Atmosphere

The Bolshoy Ice Dome will be a strongly pro-Russia house, unlike when the Americans had their share of fans in the stands in Vancouver. Is Russia gets up early, will that wave of support crash down on the U.S.?

6. Were These The Right Goalie Calls?

The Los Angeles Kings goalie was given his second straight start in the 2014 Games after winning against Slovakia. Some believed 2010 Olympic hero Ryan Miller might get the nod against the Russians, but Team USA Coach Dan Bylsma is rolling with Quick.

Can he handle Russia’s offensive arsenal? If he struggles against Russia, does that open the door for Miller, with one game left before the medal round tournament?

The Russians swapped out Semyon Varlamov, their Game 1 winner, for Sergei Bobrovsky, the reigning goalie of the year in the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets. ‘Bob’ doesn’t have the international experience that Varlamov has; but he’s a butterfly-style goalie that might be able to make some athletic saves against the American attack.

7. History

These teams will always be tied to the 1980 Miracle On Ice, which has been mentioned breathlessly around Sochi in anticipation for this game. While both teams probably consider Canada to be their chief rival 34 years later, there’s still an emotional component to this game.

But beyond that: This is Russia, trying to continue their push for gold on home ice. “We know how important it is for them to do well here and do well and win a gold medal here,” said Bylsma.

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