As far as preliminary-round games go, they don’t get much bigger than this (at least until Sunday). The U.S. meets Russia in its second prelim tilt of the World Junior Championship Friday and the game has major seeding implications. You can watch the game live on NHL Network, as well as on NHL.com starting at 9 a.m. ET.
Both teams are coming off opening-game victories, with the U.S. beating Germany comfortably, while Russia had to sweat one out in overtime against Slovakia. The tournament hosts may have gotten a much-needed wake-up call against the stronger-than-expected Slovaks. Even Russian players were saying they were not ready for that game.
It should be a different story against the USA. Team Russia would love nothing more than to beat the Americans in front of an adoring crowd in Ufa, so the U.S. better be ready for a motivated opponent.
Whoever wins this game will be better positioned for a trip to the medal round and that trumps everything. With both still awaiting games with Canada, beating each other is a priority.
It should be an incredibly exciting, fast-paced game between these two great rivals.
Coming up after the jump, the latest on Team USA, an in-depth look at Russia, keys to the game and more.
Team USA Update
Coming off the big 8-0 win against Germany, there shouldn’t be any resting on laurels for Team USA. Russia brings a completely different challenge and are much tougher on home ice, but the U.S. can be encouraged by how well it opened the tournament.
Though it seemed like the U.S. answered a lot of those burning questions on Day 1, the roster still has not been finalized. As of this writing, the U.S. has not made a final decision on which of Matt Grzelcyk or Patrick Sieloff will be the seventh defenseman. UPDATE: Sieloff added to roster.
Adam Kimelman of NHL.com asked Housley when that decision may come.
US coach Phil Housley said decision on 7th D might come tomorrow, or they could go with 6 again vs. Russia. Said “It’s a day-to-day thing.”
— Adam Kimelman (@NHLAdamK) December 27, 2012
So not much news there. Though the U.S. got by just fine with six defensemen against Germany, doing the same against Russia is getting a little on the risky side.
It’s also starting to irk the teams awaiting whichever defenseman gets cut. Teams allow their players to go to the World Juniors expecting them to play. When they’re healthy and they don’t play, it’s understandably frustrating to the team that has sacrificed some depth.
Not knowing the inner workings of this situation, it’s hard to know where this goes next. USA Hockey, in this tournament, is obligated really only to do to what best positions this team for winning a gold medal. However it is understandable for that frustration to bubble up from impatient coaches.
It’s unfortunate for the players, too, but you’d expect they’ve been apprised of the situation by Team USA’s management and have some understanding what’s going on. It may all not matter, as Team USA could make that final decision before the Russia game and everything goes back to the way it was.
If the U.S. does decide to stick with six D against a team as skilled as Russia, it could be trouble, but they know they have a good group with the six they have. An extra guy for depth certainly wouldn’t hurt though.
On to other topics…
— This game should have added significance for Alex Galchenyuk, who spent parts of his youth in Russia. His father played for the old Soviet national teams and is of Belarusian decent. The Milwaukee-born forward could have played for Russia if he chose, but he wanted to play for the country of his birth. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have a connection to one of his former homes. Expect a spirited effort out of Galchenyuk for Team USA.
— One of the big reasons Phil Housley was selected to lead this team was because of his experience playing in and against Russia. He’ll be put to the test against this highly-skilled group and we could learn a lot more about Housley’s abilities behind the bench. This is a big one for the head coach.
The host country came into the tournament with a lot of gold-medal hype and with good reason. That said, the defense is only OK, while the forwards and goaltending are as good as ever for Russia.
The big question mark about this team is the D corps, though. While boasting a lot of strong offensive defensemen, it was porous against Slovakia, allowing 34 shots on goal. There isn’t usually going to be much help from the forwards to cover the mistakes of the D either. Russia got by Slovakia just barely as a result.
Having a pretty well-established two-headed monster in net certainly helps make up for the shortcomings on defense. Andrei Vasilevski and Andrei Makarov have WJC experience and have each had a taste of success at this tournament.
Vasilevski made 32 saves in the game against Slovakia and looks poised to be back in net against Team USA. The Tampa Bay first-round pick has good size and mobility and has played in a multitude of important games. He’s well-equipped for what the U.S. will bring and has turned goaltending into the real strength of the team.
Up front, Russia has a bevy of gifted forwards led by No. 1 overall pick Nail Yakupov. The skill just keeps on coming with Alex Khokhlachev, Mikhail Grigorenko, Anton Slepyshev, Nikita Kucherov and the list goes on.
The big thing about having guys with skill like that is that Russia can capitalize on mistakes as well as, if not better than any team in the tournament. It doesn’t take much for them to get the puck up ice and put the puck in the net.
Russian teams are also stereotypically strong on the power play. They only put in one with the man advantage in five opportunities against Slovakia, but expect that to improve as the tournament progresses.
The skill up front makes them a lot of fun to watch, but nightmarish for opponents. The top six against Slovakia included Yakupov playing with Khokhlachev and Andrei Sigrayov, as well as Mikhail Grigorenko centering Anton Slepyshev and Nikita Kucherov. Watch for that second group to be particularly dangerous.
Though the defense isn’t much to write home about, Albert Yarullin and Nikita Nestorov give Russia a highly-mobile top pair that like to get involved in the rush and can score. Both have absolute bombs from the point. Giving them open looks could be costly.
Here’s a look at Russia’s highlights vs. Slovakia
About the Match-Up
Of all the games played so far at this WJC, this has all the makings to be the best yet. With so many talented players on the same ice surface, it’s going to be an entertaining hockey game.
Team USA has the speed to be able to handle Russia, but it is the defense that will really put to the test. With Team USA’s D getting engaged offensively and jumping into the rush, they have to be wary of Russia’s ability in transition. A bad pass here or there and it’s trouble. The U.S. D will have to be a lot choosier about when to take those chances against an opportunistic team like Russia.
With all of that skill, Russia really struggled to open things up against Slovakia, which plays more of a trap style. The U.S. won’t be trapping anyone, but it can help itself out defensively with pressure from the forwards. Puck possession is going to be a big key for the U.S. Getting sustained pressure in the offensive zone, not forcing passes and trying to be too cute with the puck will help wear down the already shaky Russian D.
The U.S. also has to be the better team in transition. Keeping Russia on its heels as opposed to allowing them to push the pace will help the U.S. control the game better. Russia can get all five guys caught up in the rush, so taking a page out of the Russian book and catching them making mistakes will be important for the U.S.
Team USA will also need another solid effort out of John Gibson to be successful. As long as he plays as he did against Germany, the U.S. won’t have a lot to worry about. Gibson should see more shots today and of better quality, so he’ll have to be ready for that.
Projected Lineup for Team USA vs. Russia
There’s no reason to expect the U.S. to switch things up now with how well things were clicking against Germany. Jim Vesey may get a little extra ice time and the U.S. may have a seventh defenseman picked before the game, but other than that expect a little more of the same.
15 Galchenyuk – 7 Kuraly – 16 Barber
13 Gaudreau – 10 Miller – 23 Grimaldi
12 Lucia – 25 Trocheck – 22 Biggs
20 Pietila – 18 Bardreau – 21 Hartman
6 Reilly – 3 Jones
4 Gostisbehere – 8 Trouba
19 McCabe – 5 Murphy
Three Keys for Team USA
Limit Mistakes: This should be a key to every game, but it’s particularly important against a team with the skill of Russia. That skill allows the Russians to be opportunistic with their chances. Making multiple mistakes could lead to the game getting away from Team USA. Limiting penalties and not trying to force passes will be a big help in getting past Russia. As long as Team USA can keep things simple and make smart decisions with the puck, they should be able to achieve some success with this key.
Get Physical: A key in the last game as well, the U.S. might be able to help itself by playing the body a bit more. Russia isn’t necessarily a soft team, contradictory to stereotypes, however being the more physical team would sway another advantage to Team USA. The U.S. players will have to pick their spots as effective hitting (i.e. separating player from puck) is just as important as those tone-setting body checks.
Dictate the Pace: The U.S. is best when it’s forcing the other team to play the game at their pace. For this edition of Team USA, it’s a very, very fast pace. Sometimes the game is going to warrant slowing things down a bit, but if Russia forces Team USA into playing a game outside of their comfort zone, it could be bad news. The U.S. is so effective in using its speed to burn teams in transition and create offense that it could keep Russia on its heels for a good portion of the game.
— Team USA’s player statistics through one game. (IIHF)
— There was only one other game Thursday besides USA-Germany. Switzerland rolled over Latvia. Full schedule and results are here.
— Ryan Kennedy takes a look at Phil Housley behind Team USA’s bench, with comments from the man himself and some U.S. players. (The Hockey News)
— The Nashville Predators are pleased prospect Jim Vesey has a big opportunity to develop his game with Team USA. (The Tennessean)
— Dave Starman, who should be doing color commentary for this tournament in my opinion, is churning out some thoughtful content for NHL.com including his keys to success for Team USA at the WJC. (NHL.com)
And finally, some extended highlights from USA’s 8-0 win over Germany.