U18WC: USA-Russia Preview

To put it simply, tonight’s game is… well… HUGE. Not only does the U.S. take on one of its historic rivals in Team Russia tonight, it also has a chance to all but secure itself the bye into the semifinals with a regulation win.

Coming up after the jump, a complete preview of USA-Russia, including a look at some of Team Russia’s top players.

Russia survived a bit of a scare last night when it narrowly defeated Germany, 5-4, in a shootout. It may have been a bit of a wake-up call for the Russians who looked absolutely listless in the second period and parts of the third.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is well rested after an off-day Saturday and also alone at the top of Group A with a 2-0-0-0 record.

Being the top dog in the pool on Day 4 of the tournament won’t mean much without a win tonight. Russia has earned five of six points and would surpass Team USA with a regulation win. So there’s a lot to play for tonight.

Having watched the Russians play twice now, there’s no doubt tonight’s contest will be the toughest Team USA has played.

Team Russia has a bevy of skilled forwards. No surprise there. They’ve also got very good size, speed and strength throughout the lineup. Again, no surprise.

It should be interesting to see which netminder the Russians will tab for tonight. Pavel Shegalo got the nod in Russia’s game against Germany and saw some time in the Slovakia blow out, but hasn’t looked real solid. In fact, he was pulled after overtime in favor of 1994-born Andrei Vasilevski, who came off the bench cold (a la Julie “The Cat” Gaffney in D2) and stopped two of Germany’s three shooters to secure the Russian victory.

Vasilevski and his big 6-foot-3, 201-pound frame might be guarding the net tonight. He had a solid effort in the minutes he played against Slovakia and looked solid coming off the bench in the shootout last night. He’s a big boy that moves pretty well.

Up front, all of the hype coming into the tournament went to OHL Rookie of the Year Nail Yakupov. Some even believe him to be the best 1994-born player on the planet available in for the 2012 draft. (Thanks to Dan for correcting me.)

Well, in this tournament he hasn’t even been the best 1994-born player on his team, with just one goal (the eighth against Slovakia). Yakupov was markedly better in the third period of the Germany game, but was virtually invisible in the first two and much of the Slovakia game. Will we see his best effort against the U.S.? Perhaps.

Mikhail Grigorenko, on the other hand, has been as good as advertised and has outplayed his fellow 1994-born teammates (and most of the 1993s, too) by a wide margin. At 6-foot-3, 194 pounds, Grigorenko can take over a game with relative ease. He is second on Russia’s team with six points (2g-4a) and always seems like a threat to bury.

Nikita Kucherov has been Russia’s most productive scorer with eight points (3g-5a). He can really wire the puck and can be pretty slippery out there. Kucherov scored the game-winner in the SO with a wrister that was off his stick in the blink of an eye. If he has space, he usually won’t miss. Team USA will be keeping close tabs on No. 16, I’m sure.

Nikita Nesterov might be Russia’s best defenseman here. He runs the power play and can get the puck up to the forwards in a hurry. He earned a game misconduct last night and I have not yet heard if there was going to be further discipline for his high cross-check on a German forward.

The U.S. will have to be wary of taking penalties as the Russians are steretypically deadly with the man advantage. Several defensemen can really let the puck fly from the point, particularly Anton Saveliev, who scored a beauty of a one-timer goal last night on a power play.

Team USA hasn’t given up a power-play goal yet in this tournament, but it hasn’t seen a power play as effective as Team Russias. The Russians have scored five power-play goals in 15 chances.

If you don’t think special teams are important, consider that five of the 10 teams in this tournament (Finland, Germany, Norway, Russia and the U.S.) are operating power plays with a success rate of 31% or higher.

The Russians have struggled on the PK in this tournament, having given up five power-play goals so far on 16 penalties against. Having a bad PK is one thing, but taking terrible penalties is another. Team Russia had a total of three misconducts last night, including Nesterov’s match penalty. When they get frustrated, they get chippy and they make mistakes. You can almost always count on at least a few gifts from the Russians if things aren’t going their way.

Team USA, who seems to have it’s power play figured out after a rough go against Switzerland will have to capitalize on the opportunities they’re given. There will be a few opportunities with the man advantage. With scoring chances so hard to come by at even strength, Team USA is going to have to bring it on the PP.

John Gibson will also have his toughest night as the shots will come from anywhere against a team that loves to shoot. It seems like almost every skater on this club has scoring potential. However, the big goaltender has proven time and time again that his simple, yet effective approach matches up well with just about anybody.

The U.S. has only given up two goals through two games, which is the lowest of any team in the tournament. Once again, though, this Russian team is different than Switzerland and Slovakia… by a lot.

The U.S. defense is going to have to get right in the face of the shooters and make sure Russia has to work hard for it’s scoring chances. While Gibson is a great goaltender and the team can be confident in his abilities, they’ll have to give him some help in order to come away with a win. Clearing loose rebounds and limiting defensive-zone turnovers should always be a top priority, but even moreso against a team of Russia’s caliber.

For Team USA’s forwards, they have a chance to capitalize on Russia’s offensive-minded approach. Russia is always looking to transition quickly. If Team USA’s forwards can put pressure on the Russian D, there are going to be turnovers. Making those turnovers hurt early is going to help.

Anytime you play Russia, you have to expect them to come out flying. The first 10 minutes, or perhaps even the first five, of the game could have a very big effect on the overall contest. It is of paramount importance that Team USA doesn’t allow itself to get sucked into playing Russia’s game and running around the ice. If Russia can spread Team USA out, they’re going to have some real quality scoring chances.

The U.S. forwards are going to have to support the D and help frustrate the Russian attack. Should Russia lose it’s cool or start pressing within the first 10 minutes of the game, the U.S. might be able to take control. So the first period is going to be huge in this game. There won’t be time to feel each other out.

The U.S. is going to be in one tonight with Russia. This is where the adversity faced against Switzerland, playing in a tight battle there, could pay off. Team USA has to be able to weather the offensive storm and get some more production out of its top scorers. If the U.S. can contain the Russians’ skill and out-hustle its opponents, it could be looking at another three-point night.

Keys to Victory for Team USA against Russia:

– Frustrate the Russian attack early.

– I cannot stress this enough: Stay out of the penalty box.

– Play a simple game. Out-work Russia.

You can watch one of the greatest rivalries in international hockey live on FASTHockey.com at 1:30 p.m. EDT. I’ll be on the air right around 1:15 to set the stage. I don’t think you’ll want to miss this hockey game. Should be a dandy.

Interesting facts:

There is only one team the United States has a losing record against at the IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship. Russia. Team USA is 3-8 liftime against the Russians. The last meeting between the two clubs came in Fargo in the gold-medal game. The U.S. dominated that night, beating Russia 5-0 and capturing gold.

Additionally, the U.S. and Russia are tied atop the medal race at this event with eight apiece. Team USA has five golds to Russia’s four, however.

Every team at the tournament has a team leader, who handles administrative things and assists the coaching staff. Russia’s team leader is the legendary Boris Mikhailov, who captained many of the great Soviet national teams of the 1970s and 80s. You might know his name best from captaining the Soviet team that was on the losing end of the Miracle on Ice, but he is widely considered one of the greatest ever to play the game. I wonder what his NHL career would have been like had he ever had the chance.

TEAM USA STATISTICAL LEADERS:

I’ve meant to post this after my SVK recap, but here are your top U.S. players in each statistical category.

Points: Robbie Russo — 4
Goals: Reid Boucher/Ryan Haggerty — 2
Assists: J.T. Miller/Robbie Russo — 3
Plus/Minus: Zac Larraza — +3
SOG: Rocco Grimaldi — 10

I should have the USA-RUS recap up a few hours after the game.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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One Response to U18WC: USA-Russia Preview

  1. Dan says:

    Yakupov is a 93 not a 94

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