January 03, 2009

It's Canada vs Russia Again

While Canada vs. the United States may have taken over as Canada's top hockey rivalry due to relatively friendly political and societal reasons, hockey's classic rivalry remains between hockey's top two hockey countries, Canada and Russia.

The two countries face off yet again on Saturday, this time in the 2009 World Junior Championships semi-final. The prize is a spot in the gold medal game.

Here's a look at the two countries head to head history in the tournament's history.

The rivalry goes back to the days of amateur international hockey tournaments in the 1950s and 1960s, but was truly born at the 1972 Summit Series. From there it reached epic proportions in tournaments such as the Canada Cup, and especially the World Juniors.

Canada has had a lot of success against the Russians in recent years, including sweeping three consecutive gold medal showdowns in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
The Canadians have the crowd support and the best coach, but the Russians are older and have incredible skill and speed. Looking at objectively, I have to say Russia might have an edge on Canada. Canada needs to take away the Russians immense speed through the neutral zone and keep their skilled players to the perimeter.
As entertaining as the game was against the Americans, Canada really did not play all that well. There were many defensive zone breakdowns and poor pinches. At times they had trouble keeping their emotions in check. Goaltender Dustin Tokarski really bailed them out at times with big, big saves.
Canada needs their defense pairings to come up with two big games if Canada is going to win a medal. In particular the top pairing, Thomas Hickey and Colten Teubert, have not looked like a true top pairing so far. Hickey, the team captain, made several gaffes in the American game, and needs to simplify his game. So far PK Subban and Ryan Ellis, in an offensive role, have really impressed with the others all still looking to make an impact.
With the Russians sporting the offensive genius of Sergei Andronov and Nikita Filatov, the Canadian defense will need to a strong effort. The Americans exploited the Canadian defense early the round robin game, only to let Canada back into the game. The Russians likely will not be as accomodating.
That being said, the forwards also need to do a better job of coming back and giving their defensemen options. Against the Americans the Canadians really came out hitting and looking to physically punish the Americans early. The Americans jumped out to their early 3-0 lead in part because of the Canadian over-exuberance, catching the Canadians in outnumbered situations.
Canada definitely will benefit from being well rested. This will be the Russians second game in 24 hours, while Canada has rested the two previous days. The Canadians need to make sure they are down from their emotional high from their big game against the Americans. That extra day really comes in handy for such situations. The Americans were never able to recapture their emotions and looked disheartened in their upset loss to the Slovaks. Pat Quinn will have his team refocussed and reinvigourated.
It is going to be another classic match up between the Canadians and the Russians. The game will be on TSN at 7:30 PM EST.

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