February 24, 2010
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The chant began with around 3 minutes left in Canada's game against Germany on Tuesday, led by a guy in a red-and-white cape in the lower bowl and then spreading to the rest of Hockey Place like a fever.
"We! Want! Rush! Uh!"
The Canadians and Russians, so often tabbed for the gold-medal game, meet in the quarters with something nearly as vital on the line: survival.
Team Canada tumbled to the qualifying round after a stunning loss to the Americans on Sunday, licking wounds and bruised egos during an emphatic 8-2 win over Germany. Team Russia was similarly stunned – by Slovakia – before looking every bit a champion in a win against the Czechs. They've also played the role of the big, bad foreigners in the tournament, shunning some English-language media after games, a tactic Alex Ovechkin(notes) explained in a SovSport interview via Alex Ovetjkin blog:
Finally, the moment has arrived: And by that we mean the moment that the ridiculous CTV Sid-vs.-Ovie infomercial promised we would witness. It will be an epic battle, an Olympic memory that will resonate in the hockey world long after Gary Bettman pulls the rug out from under NHL participation. And it's a battle the Canadians will win. Here's how ...
Can Russia win the gold?
"If we'll win three elimination games. It would be great not to look for excuses later, like, we tried, but something did not work. We must go out and play to win. And listen to no one. There is a lot of pressure on players and coaches. Everyone is expecting gold from us. The Olympics games are a great holiday for everyone worldwide. But we need to take a break in talking to media. Avoiding media saves you the energy. You must understand that you need to give yourself completely in every game, and not to leave your energy at the mixed-zones."
1. Mike Babcock has solved his lines riddle.
In the 8-2 win over Germany, there was only one line – Patrick Marleau(notes), Joe Thornton(notes) and Dany Heatley(notes) – that was static from the loss to the Americans. But it was the first game in which all four lines played well, thanks to Babcock's reshuffling of his deck.
Rick Nash(notes) was dropped from the Sidney Crosby(notes) line to the Ryan Getzlaf(notes)/Corey Perry duo; the result was a tough, dangerous line that could be used to neutralize the Alex Ovechkin/Evgeni Malkin(notes)/Alex Semin line. Babcock likes to use power vs. power, and the Anaheim Ducks forwards have shown they're up for that challenge; ask the San Jose Sharks about that.
Meanwhile, Crosby clicked with new linemates Jarome Iginla(notes) (two goals) and Eric Staal(notes) (three assists). "We controlled the puck a lot down low," said Crosby, and that'll be key against the Russians.
The fourth-line contributions from Toews and Mike Richards(notes) shouldn't go unnoticed either. Canada is deeper than Russia at every position, and if Babcock has in fact solved the chemistry issues, they can roll four confidently, even with Russia having the last change.
2. Canada can match Russia physically.
But overall, Canada can handle the Russians' physical game. The size of their forwards and defense could actually allow them to dictate that facet of the game. As Iginla said Tuesday: "We can play rough-and-tough-style. I'm not worried about that."
As for team speed: Yes, it's a concern. The Americans exposed the Canadians in this department, and the Russians are just as fast.
To hear Babcock talk about Luongo is to hear a coach who's finally comfortable with "his guy" between the pipes, and one who isn't going to listen to criticisms about his accomplishments.
"It's really easy to say he didn't do this or he didn't do that. I think his bank account shows he's a pretty good goalie," said Babcock. "I know every time we play him, he puts up this wall."
Again, no wall required for Luongo. Neither goalie needs to "steal" this game. Both need to eliminate momentum-shifting mistakes, and I'm confident Luongo can do that better than Nabokov.
4. The Russian power play is stunningly awful.
Too many czars in the palace. The Russians are 2-for-16 on the power play in this tournament; only Norway, Germany, and Latvia have been worse. They overpass, they look disjointed, and there's no correlation between how good they look on paper to how they execute. Plus, Canada has killed 11 of 12 power plays – although staying out of the box is paramount against the Russians.
The Canadians have faced the same problems on their power play, but converted once against the Germans. If the forward lines have been sorted out, the power play will improve.
5. The home ice advantage.
The X-factor. As the Americans showed, the unbelievable atmosphere inside Hockey Place can bea sphincter-clenching stress factory with an early goal by the "visitors." But when the Canadians are rolling, the crowd is the wind at their backs, the ultimate motivator.
The fans wanted Russia. They got Russia. In the end, they'll say goodbye to Russia and hello to the semifinals.