Canada vs Russia

Alex Ovechkin & Sidney Crosby

Everyone knows what is at stake for tonight’s game, so I won’t even get into it. The amount of unbelievable storylines that are in this match is absolutely awesome. I almost wish that I wasn’t fan of one side so that I could just sit back and watch some fantastic hockey. But I am, and it will probably go down as one of the most intense games that I have ever watched. I put together a bit of a preview below. Anyone who knows hockey would be stupid not to be legitimately scared of the Russian team; they are very good and have a quick strike offense that cannot be matched. Tonight is more than just another chapter of Crosby vs Ovechkin (and I hate how it is already being billed that way); it our Canadian pride on the line once again against a country that has taken it from us too many times in recent years. My prediction is alllllll the way at the bottom. Enjoy…

Why I think Canada will win

Crowd

Although Russia is the official home team in this game, Canada has every home field advantage except for the last change. The arena has been absolutely electric during every game so far, and I can’t even imagine what it will be like tonight. The Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuu chants after every save will only add to his confidence. And since NHL fans feel the need to send in the boo-birds every time the opposing team’s best player touches the puck, expect them to rain down whenever Ovechkin, Kovalchuk or Malkin are in control.

The key to this is obviously to absolutely pepper Nabokov with shots, and get an early lead. Canada cannot risk going down 1-0 or 2-0 early, and have the crowd taken out of the game.  The Russians are made up of players who are viewed as pure, 100% gamebreakers that thrive on the spotlight. Going up 2-0 in Canada’s with an entire audience and country hating them is probably all they want.

Size

While the Russians have a few big forwards who actually use their body to their advantage, Canada has a whole team of them. The members of the San Jose line are all over 6′ 2″, while the newly formed Nash-Getzlaf-Perry line are all over 6′ 3″. Add to this Eric Staal, who is 6′ 4″ and Toews, Richards and Morrow, who has play like they’re that height, and Canada should have no problem manhandling the Russian defense. Not only are they big players, but they are extremely fast, so a dump and chance (hammer) tactic might be used off the start to get the Russians afraid. Pressuring their D is absolutely key to winning this game. If they don’t, the puck movers like Markov and Gonchar will be able to break the puck out to some of the best quick strike players in the league, which will be bad news for the Canadians who haven’t looked so fleet of foot (Pronger, Niedermayer and Boyle).

Canada also has to use their size when in deep. Their powerplay has been surprisingly inefficient for the most part of the tournament. They need to start relying on their best big bodies to move the puck around to the open guy, instead of just passing it back and forth between the defense until a shot opens up.

Mismatch on Defense

Aside from Gonchar, Markov and Volchenkov, Russia’s back end is made up of secondary defensemen who do not play against the big lines in the NHL. Babcock is known for not only rolling all four lines, but also switching them up throughout the game. I don’t know how much this will happen if they have a lead, but if Canada goes down, expect him to put out whoever is working hardest. This will keep the Russians guessing as to who they need on the ice. The fact of the matter is, every player on Team Canada is one of the go to guys on his respective team, so every line should be a threat to score. Russia cannot match that. If Canada uses their size and skill to keep the puck off away from the Russian offense, this should be a one sided affair.

Nabokov

Evgeni Nabokov definitely does not have the title of a big game goalie for the sole reason that he has never won one. As much of the blame that is thrown at Thornton and Marleau after yearly playoff disappoinments should be put on Nabokov’s shoulders as well. In 2007, they let go a 2-1 series lead against the Red Wings; in 2008 they were upset by the lower seeded Dallas Stars; in 2009 they were upset once again by the 8th seeded Anaheim Ducks, a series in which Nabokov was absolutely horrible. I don’t have much faith in him, so I chalk that up as an advantage to Canada.

Another thing to think about is the fact that Canada has four of Nabokov’s San Jose teammates, all of whom consume a lot of powerplay time together. If there were one or two players on the Sharks playing against Nabby, I wouldn’t consider it, but I assure you the four will be discussing (and sharing) his tendencies to the entire team.

Why I think Russia will win

Powerplay

While Canada’s powerplay might be statistically better over the course of this tournament (28% over Russia’s 12.5%), I still can’t give Canada the advantage in this category. I will be absolutely shaking if Canada goes a man down and then score is anywhere near close. Any team that can put out Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and Gonchar and is clicking at 12.5% right now is due for a breakout.

Pure Snipers vs Canada

To add to my fear of their powerplay, Russia possesses different kind of snipers compared to Canada. When looking the best goal scorers in recent years, Heatley and Iginla would be the standouts from Canada, with Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and, to a lesser degree, Semin, on the Russian side. While Heatley and Iginla are definite superstar snipers in the NHL, they are a completely different breed than the Russian side in that they rely much more on the rest of their team to generate the chance for them. I am not saying that they do not work for it, and what they do is not impressive, but they are more of a receive the pass and shoot player. Look at any of Iginla’s goals this tournament; other players broke into the zone or away from a defender, fed him the puck and he scored.

The Russians are not like that. The three mentioned above are end to end rushers with absolute blinding speed. How many times have when seen Ovechkin cross the line and fire a puck through the defense’s legs and into the net?

That is the type of offense Canada cannot match. Russia will not rely on big, methodical set up guys like Thornton or Getzlaf.  The reason this worries me is because if Canada cannot get the puck away from the speedy Russians, then Heatley and Iginla are not fast enough to generate goal scoring chances on their own. They rely on puck pressure and puck possession.

Gamebreakers

Plain and simple, Russia has more skilled top players. Not saying that always results in a win, but they have two of the “Top 3” in Ovechkin and Malkin; one who is the reigning two time Hart and Maurice Richard winner, the other who was last year’s Art Ross and Conn Smythe winner. They also have the second best pure goal scorer in the league in Ilya Kovalchuk, who has five straight 40+ goal seasons. And they have the reigning three time Selke winner for best defensive forward in Pavel Datsyuk, who is probably the most skilled guy on the ice at any time.

Line Matching

If Mike Babcock were coaching Russia, I would take them in a second, no questions. But I do not know how Vyacheslav Bykov will handle having last change against the Canadians. If he cares about it, look out. He will definitely be trying to avoid the Ovechkin line going up against either Mike Richards (if Babcock wants to go with a shut down line) or Sidney Crosby (if he decides going best vs best).

Another thing to worry about is that through Mike Babcock’s teaching, the Red Wings absolutely shut down Sidney Crosby in the Finals last year. While it was Henrik Zetterberg who lined up against him every shift, you can bet anything that Pavel Datsyuk will be up to the task tonight. Last change gives Russia that matchup.

Variables

Crosby vs Malkin

Everyone is making such a big deal about Crosby vs Ovechkin when it is actually the two Penguins that will likely be going head to head every shift at the faceoff circle and during play. Malkin was dominant when the Red Wings put all of their focus on Crosby in the Finals; the same might happen if too much attention is paid to Ovie.

Canada’s Defense

The goals are to keep Pronger and Niedermayer away from Russia’s top line; they are simply not fast enough any more.

Luongo

Just please outduel Nabokov. This has a chance to be a high scoring affair, so he has to be OK with letting in a few goals. Thinking you are going to shut out Ovechkin in the biggest game of his career is just stupid.

Prediction

Russia 4     Canada 3

I think I am only saying this because I know  from my experience with the Wings, if I think they will lose and they do, I am less disappointed. I just can’t shake the rough stretches of play that Canada has had over this tournament. Defensive lapses are exactly what Russia will capitalize on and while Canada has way more depth, Russia’s top talent is better. I really think that Bykov’s line matching is key to the outcome, and I am worried about how pumped up their big guns are to beat Canada tonight.

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