VANCOUVER – Much is being made of Rivalry Day at the Olympics Sunday, but these are NHL players we’re talking about here. At the end of the day, bragging rights will take a very, very distant backseat to what the three games mean in the grand scheme of things.
And they mean an enormous amount. Starting with the Russians facing the Czechs at 12 noon local time, then moving on to Canada against USA in the afternoon and Finland against Sweden for the nightcap, all three games have very deep implications on the rest of the tournament.
The fact they all involve countries that are not exactly on each other’s Christmas card lists adds a little more spice to it, that’s all.
“The path to where we both want to go is a lot easier if we win (Sunday),” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock.
USA players such as Ryan Kesler and Jack Johnson were trying to whip up that sentiment by talking about how much they hate Canada, but Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur responded in a far more docile tone.
“(Hate) is a big word,” Brodeur said. “I don’t hate people. But they are going to want to take something away from us and we know that. If we know they’re hating us, we’ll have to hate them back, I guess.”
All six teams are hockey powers and are destined to move on to the next round of games, but what happens in the three games will determine which teams finish in the top four spots and avoid having to play a qualifying game prior to the quarterfinal.
The three winning teams from each game will win their groups, but the Russians will need to win in regulation in order to overtake the Czechs for first place in Group B. The team with the next best record will join the top three in getting byes directly to the quarterfinal.
“I’m sure not too many people think we’re going to win except for us,” said American Patrick Kane. “We feel we have a really good team and we’re in first place in our division for a good reason. We’re looking forward to the challenge and hopefully we can prove to the world that we’re the real thing.”
“We put pressure on ourselves to win and we expect to win,” Jack Johnson said. “A lot of us in our room – Kaner, Erik (Johnson), Phil (Kessel) we’ve had a lot of success in international tournaments and we expect to win.”
The fact there is a growing intensity to the rivalry between the two countries adds something to the spectacle to be sure, just as it does for the Czechs and Russians and the Finns and Swedes. For the Canadians and Americans, the rivalry is pretty much restricted to on the ice. But when it comes to Czechs-Russians and Finns-Swedes, the feelings run much deeper and are rooted in things that go far beyond the rink.
“I think as a team we hate to lose to anybody in this tournament, especially the Americans,” said Canadian center Jonathan Toews. “It’s a rivalry for a reason. They’re a good team and you have to respect them and we realize that. I think both teams will elevate their level of play in consideration of who they’re playing against.”
Much has also been made of the familiarity factor – 18 players on the Canadian team have teammates on the American squad and 14 Americans have Canadians for teammates. Zach Parise of USA said it’s much bigger than facing Martin Brodeur and, surprisingly, said he won’t be trying to tell his teammates how to beat the New Jersey Devils goalie. In fact, it will actually be the opposite.
“They play against him and I don’t play against him,” Parise said. “They’re the ones who play against him in games and they’re the ones who score on him in games. I want to hear what they have to say.”
You can expect to see the following lines for the Canadians for the game:
Mike Richards-Sidney Crosby-Rick Nash
Patrick Marleau-Joe Thornton-Dany Heatley
Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Eric Staal
Brenden Morrow-Jonathan Toews-Jarome Iginla
Extra forward: Patrice Bergeron
And for USA, you can expect to see:
Ryan Kesler-Patrick Kane-Bobby Ryan
Joe Pavelski-Phil Kessel-Ryan Malone
Dustin Brown-David Backes-Chris Drury
Jamie Langenbrunner-Paul Stastny-Zach Parise
Extra forward: Ryan Callahan
The Canadian power play has struggled so far in the tournament, in large part because Mike Babcock wants to see the same thing as every Canadian who is yelling at his television for the players to shoot more.
“There’s no question about that,” Babcock said. “We just think there are way too many passes.”
“We’ve been too cute,” said defenseman Chris Pronger. “We’re out there and we’re almost looking at it as an all-star game and you can’t look at it in that manner.”
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
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