COLOGNE, Germany – The numbers all favour Russia. The Russians have 14 Olympians to Canada’s one. And they have won six straight while the Canadians have lost three of their last four.
But don’t expect a conservative Canadian game plan when the two rivals meet Thursday in the quarter-finals at the IIHF World Hockey Championship (TSN, 2:15 p.m. ET).
Coach Craig MacTavish wants his team to be assertive.
“You can’t be caught backing off,” he said Wednesday after Canada’s first practice at Lanxess Arena. “You have to be aggressive when you play the Russians. Otherwise, they’re going to come at you with a lot of speed. You want to take the game to them and that’s going to be our mentality.”
That game plan was extremely effective at the Vancouver Olympics, where Canada overhwhelmed the Russians right from the opening faceoff of their quarter-final matchup. Forward Corey Perry was part of that victory and thinks this team might be able to duplicate the result.
“We’ve got to take away their time and space,” said Perry. “They play 1-on-1 hockey and try to beat you with their skill. If we’re hard on the body, play sound defensively and keep that neutral zone contained, we’re going to be all right.
“We’ve just got to play hard.”
General manager Mark Messier only asks that his young players not get too wrapped up in thinking about who they’re playing.
“I think the big thing is to take the name tags off the back of their sweaters,” said Messier. “I think any time when you’re going into competition, having too much respect for the opposition is not a good idea.
“In my playing days, the teams that played us the hardest played us with the least amount of respect.”
The Russians are cruising with a perfect 6-0 record and a lineup that features virtually all of the country’s top players. They won’t need to be reminded about loss to Canada in Vancouver.
“It’s kind of a revenge, but the real rematch will be played in Sochi in 2014,” said Russian captain Ilya Kovalchuk. “They have a really young team, but they’re hungry for the win so we have to be ready.”
Despite the recent losses, Canada has shown some improvement during this event. The team battled hard enough against the desperate Czechs on Tuesday for MacTavish to pronounce it the best effort of the tournament.
He juggled each of his forward units for Wednesday’s practice and devoted most of the session to reinforcing various aspects of the team’s system—everything from 5-on-5 play to the power play and penalty kill.
Canada is looking to avoid its first quarter-final exit at this tournament since 2002. The country has been on a remarkable run of success since that event, having appeared in the gold-medal final six of the past seven years.
Russia captured the last two world championships with one-goal victories over Canada but has barely been challenged so far here. With Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Gonchar, there won’t be any surprises Thursday.
“It’s a lineup that we’re very familiar with (since) most of those guys are National Hockey League players,” said Canadian captain Ray Whitney. “We’ve faced most of those guys on numerous occasions. Individually, we know what to expect from each player that they have over there.
“How we play as a team and how they play as a team I think’s going to be the difference in the outcome.”
Messier says the game will also give some of the country’s up-and-comers a taste of what it’s like to play a big game on the international stage, something that will benefit the program down the road.
“We find ourselves here in the quarter-finals (with) an opportunity to play a team that hasn’t lost in (25) games and is a powerhouse in world championship competition,” Messier said. “One of the goals of coming here was to give these players this kind of experience in this kind of game. We find ourselves in the situation we wanted to be in and it’ll be a good test for them.”