Well, it isn't the way many old time hockey fans would have pictured it - Canada and Russia won't be battling for the Olympic gold medal when they take to the ice tomorrow night at 4:30 PST in Vancouver - but it will still be a game for the ages, and like they did for the Canada vs USA game Sunday fans across the nation will be glued to their TV sets to watch this battle of hockey titans.
After disappointing results in the round robin portion of the Olympic men's hockey tournament that saw them eke out a shootout win over Switzerland and lose in regulation time to Team USA, Canada was forced to take the long road to Olympic glory. That road began tonight against Germany, and though the match-up on paper was lopsided in Canada's favor, Canadian fans were understandably nervous after the nail-biter against Switzerland early in the tournament.
Canada laid those fears to rest, proving beyond a doubt that they had learned from their mistake of not taking their supposedly weaker opponent seriously. From the initial puck drop they were focused, they were determined, and they were hungry. Most importantly, when they had golden chances to score they capitalized on them against San Jose Sharks goalie Thomas Greiss, something they failed to do against Jonas Hiller and Ryan Miller.
Mike Babcock again switched up the lines, still trying to find a good combination with Sidney Crosby. Tonight Jarome Iginla was back on the wing with Crosby, while Rick Nash was off in favor of Eric Staal. Nash moved onto a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and looked motivated to score all night, driving the net hard, creating chances and even drawing a penalty shot.
Iginla seemed fired up to be back on the Crosby line, and he potted two more goals to take over the team lead with 5. Shea Weber finally got the first goal by a Team Canada defenseman, though it nearly went unnoticed after Weber blasted the puck so hard it actually went right through the net. It wasn't until a stoppage in play that the goal was finally discovered on video replay.
The Canadians continued to pour on the offensive pressure and Thomas Greiss had to make several nice saves to keep the score in single digits. By the time the dust settled the final score was Canada 8, Germany 2.
Mike Babcock's line juggling aside the big change for Team Canada came in goal. Martin Brodeur, who had started the previous two games for Canada was relegated to a backup role, giving way to local star Roberto Luongo. Vancouver fans obviously approved the switch and a chorus of "Loos" could be heard every time Luongo touched the puck. Luongo looked focused and confident between the pipes, and the two goals that beat him were certainly not his fault - particularly the last goal which came on a 2 on 0 late in the third period. Luongo stopped the initial shot, but was helpless to stop the rebound as it was bunted in off the shaft of the trailing player's stick.
So, with Germany disposed of, their offense starting to click, and Luongo looking like a lock to start the game tomorrow the Canadians must swiftly adjust their sights on to the powerful Russian squad. Obviously the key to victory over the Russians will be finding a way to shut down their powerful offense. With a squad full of snipers like Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin just to name a few, Roberto Luongo and Canada's 7 defensemen will have their hands full keeping goals out of the Canadian cage.
Russia has followed a similar track to Canada, starting out slow before finally finding some chemistry against the Czech Republic. Malkin moved over to center a line with Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, and the line was a dominant force against the Czechs - just ask Jaromir Jagr. Limiting opportunities for those 3 superstars will be easier said than done, but is absolutely necessary if Canada is to pull out a victory in the quarterfinals.
Expecting Luongo to pitch a shutout against this explosive squad is unrealistic to say the least, so Canada is going to have to build on the offensive momentum they found in the Germany game. Sidney Crosby's line will obviously be key, but they will need more from Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and continued improvement by Rick Nash and Eric Staal if they want to outscore the Russians.
Scoring goals should be less of a problem against the Russians than it was against Team USA. Evgeny Nabokov is a great goaltender, but not on par with Ryan Miller, and he has a history of being very average in big games. Just look at the San Jose Sharks playoff record compared to their regular season record over the past 5 years for evidence of that. If Nabby can't elevate his game Canada's forwards may feast on him, and a Russian defense that is pretty porous beyond their top three.
Whatever the outcome, you can bet this game will be one of the highlights of the entire Olympics, and will rival the Canada/USA game in intensity and fan interest. It is just a shame it had to come in the quarter-finals as when the final whistle blows tomorrow night one of these two great hockey nations will have to clean out their lockers far too early.