VANCOUVER – Going into Wednesday’s quarterfinal game between Canada and Russia, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that Canada can ill afford to start trading chances and should play a defense-oriented game in an effort to neutralize the awesome offensive firepower of the Russians.
Not exactly certain where the logic is behind that line of thinking.
With an 8-2 win over Germany in its qualifier Tuesday night, Canada proved it can fill the net just fine against an inferior opponent. But the reason why Canada had to play a qualifying game in the first place had more to do with goaltending than a lack of offensive talent.
Why not go hammer and tong with the Russians? The 13 NHL forwards for the Canadian team have averaged 24 goals and 66 points in the NHL this season, while the Russians’ six NHL forwards have averaged 27 goals and 61 points so far in 2009-10.
The Russians have stunning offensive talent to be sure, but so does Canada. And there’s little doubt Canada has a depth of talent at forward that no country, including the Russians, can put out on the ice. And now that Canadian coach Mike Babcock has found linemates for Sidney Crosby – who would have thought it would take that long to happen? – Canada can now put out four lines that can be dangerous offensively.
Babcock downplayed his decision to put Eric Staal on the left side of the top line with Crosby and Jarome Iginla, but the line scored three goals and had a trickle-down effect through the lineup, with each of Canada’s four lines contributing at least a goal.
“I don’t know if it did anything,” Babcock said when asked what effect replacing Rick Nash on the top line with Staal had on the unit. “We moved Nash off that line more to help the (Ryan) Getzlaf unit get going. I thought Sid was jumping and I thought that line was really good tonight. Iggy has played off and on the whole tournament and I thought Staal was effective all night.”
Actually, Canada probably has to be more concerned with history when it comes to the Russians than a perceived gap in offensive talent. Canada has not beaten a Russian/Soviet/Commonwealth of Independent States team in the Olympics in 50 years, last doing it at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. Since then, Canada has lost a total of eight Olympic contests to the Russians/Soviets, including four years ago in Turin when the Russians ended Canada’s hopes for a medal with a 2-0 win in the quarterfinal game.
(Prediction here: One of two things will happen. Either Canada will lose to the Russians or they’ll defeat them and go on to win the gold medal.)
Playing a game Tuesday might have taxed the Canadian team a little more than a practice might have done, but given the result and the positive developments for the Canadian team, it was probably a better use of their time to play a game. It was a very weak opponent, but the four lines gelled and Babcock was able to get some rhythm going with his defense pairings.
The Russians will be designated as the home team for the quarterfinal game, which will limit Babcock’s ability to match lines and defense pairings, but would probably ideally like to have Crosby’s line out against the Russian unit of Evgeni Malkin between Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin and wouldn’t that just present all kinds of great subplots?
Going into these Olympics, it was all about Ovechkin and Crosby and the dream matchup is coming a little early. But when they face off, Crosby will line up against his teammate Malkin and Iginla will go along the boards with Ovechkin in what could prove to be a tantalizing matchup.
Babcock confirmed Roberto Luongo, who stopped 21 shots against Germany, will get the start against the Russians and he expects Luongo to be at his best.
“I think his bank account shows that he’s a pretty good goalie,” Babcock said of Luongo. “I know every time we play them, he puts up this wall. We’re going to give up some opportunities, that’s just the reality, they’re that good. But he’s a big man and he doesn’t let anything go under him or through him. If they put it around him, we’ll line up for the faceoff and get on with it.”
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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