The U.S. Men’s National Team had solid run through the group stage at the IIHF Men’s World Championship in Helsinki, Finland. A 5-0-0-2 record assured the Americans a spot in the quarterfinals, however a disappointing loss in the final game to Slovakia dropped Team USA to third place in the group and forced a date with defending gold medalist Russia in the quarterfinal.
The U.S. and Russia met earlier in the tournament, with the defending champs claiming a 5-3 victory. Team USA hung with the Russians all game, but it was Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov leading a third-period surge that put Team Russia over the top.
It’s going to be a tough game and not a lot of folks are going to pick Team USA to come out with a win. The quarterfinals has been an annual stalling point for U.S. teams at this tournament, so it’s going to be an awfully tall order when the two teams square off at 6 a.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Network.
Since the two teams last met, the U.S. has added Alex Galchenyuk and T.J. Oshie, who now have each had a few days to adjust to the time difference and the bigger ice. Russia meanwhile made a big addition of its own Tuesday as Alex Ovechkin informed the media he would join his national team. Ovechkin’s hockey bag, however, did not arrive with him in Finland and could put his availability in jeopardy for Thursday.
The U.S. will be preparing as if Ovechkin can play, but they already had their hands full with a highly-skilled Russian team that can turn their offense up at will it seems. Russia also added Washington Capitals top prospect Evgeni Kuznetsov to the roster.
Led by Ilya Kovalchuk (13 points) and Alex Radulov (10 points), Russia has strength at the top of its forward lineup, so adding Ovechkin only makes it stronger. Among other players familiar to North American hockey fans, Artem Anisimov, Andrei Loktionov and Fedor Tyutin all play sizable roles as well. Kuznetsov could end up being a high-impact addition as he only has gotten two games under his belt so far.
In goal, it has been an NHL tandem, with Ilya Bryzgalov posting the better numbers. Semyon Varlamov is more likely to back up. Bryzgalov has a .934 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average, so he’s been mostly solid for his homeland.
The Russian team does have some holes defensively and their offensive depth probably is below average compared to previous teams, but the U.S. will have to track plenty of offensive threats on the other side of the ice.
In the last meeting between the two clubs, the U.S. allowed a lot of chances against and were still gaining some familiarity with each other. With four games since the prelim match-up with Russia, the U.S. has built some confidence and consistency.
Additionally, John Gibson is going to start in net for Team USA, according to Joe Sacco, so that will be another key difference from the last meeting, when Ben Bishop was between the pipes. Bishop has had some clunker starts since, while Gibson has made two spectacular starts. Russia will easily be his toughest to date, though.
The 19-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect isn’t normally one to be swallowed by the occasion, playing some of his best hockey in the highest-pressure games. He’s won gold at the U18s and WJC over the last two seasons because of that even-keel he brings. Having a .984 save percentage and 0.50 goals-against average should give him and his team some confidence, even against Russia.
Team USA will likely need its top two lines to contribute in a big way offensively if its going to have any chance against Russia.
The top line of Paul Stastny centering David Moss and Craig Smith has been outstanding throughout the tournament and was Team USA’s biggest threat throughout the game against Russia. Stastny leads Team USA with nine points in seven games, while Smith has seven and Moss has five.
Galchenyuk and Oshie joined Team USA’s second line with Tim Stapleton in Tuesday’s game against Slovakia. Despite playing with two new linemates, Stapleton was generating many chances in that game, so if they start clicking a bit more, the goals could come. Having two quality skill players join Stapleton, who is familiar with much of Russia’s roster from having played both in the NHL and KHL over the last two years, should be a big positive offensively. With Oshie and Galchenyuk better adjusted and with a practice under their belts, they should figure more prominently into the game than they did against Slovakia.
Defensively, the U.S. will probably be getting a lot of ice time for Erik Johnson and Justin Faulk. Both have looked solid in the tournament and could see heavy minutes against the Kovalchuk-Radulov line.
Russia uses the big ice incredibly well, so Team USA will have to counter with its strong team speed. The mobility on defense will help a lot as the U.S. has to find a way to keep Russia’s snipers to the outside and give Gibson good looks at everything.
Special teams will also loom large in the game as both clubs have strong power-play units. Team USA’s power play ranks second in the tournament, operating at a 32 percent clip. Russia is fourth with a 25 percent success rate. Additionally, Russia’s penalty kill has not been great in the tournament, ranking 13th out of 16 teams with five power-play goals against. Any penalty taken in this game by either team could heavily impact the score, so playing disciplined hockey is a must.
Team USA doesn’t have to be perfect against Russia, but will need its best game yet to come out with a win.
If the top two lines are making the most of their chances and getting a lot of pucks to the net early, the U.S. is going to have a chance to make things happen. Getting an early lead could end up being a big key as well. Getting all four lines applying pressure in the offensive zone will help a lot. The U.S. has the speed to make Russia’s D nervous, so playing at a high pace is going to help in all facets of the game.
Team USA also has to find a way to shut down Russia’s top line as Kovalchuk has looked all-world so far, with Radulov looking about the same. Ovechkin, if he’s able to play, might still need some time to adjust, but he’ll obviously be a player they’ll have to watch.
The American defense has to be responsible with the puck and make sure they’re making good reads. Russian teams at any level can be incredibly opportunistic and pounce on mistakes. The U.S. defense has been mistake prone at various times throughout the tournament, but can’t be Thursday.
Additionally, Gibson will have to be very good, but has only been that so far in tournament play. The youngster could end up being the difference if the U.S. defense gets a little too loose.
If the U.S. were able to pull off the upset, it would be a huge accomplishment. The Americans are certainly underdogs, but not so outmatched that they can’t compete. It should be an entertaining game if you’re able to wake up for it.
NBC Sports Network actually is airing all of the quarterfinal match-ups Thursday from the IIHF World Championship starting with USA-Russia at 6 a.m. ET, Switzerland-Czech Republic at 8:30 a.m., Finland-Slovakia at 11 a.m., and Canada-Sweden at 2 p.m. So if you’re home, there’s going to be plenty of good hockey on to divert you from the chores for a bit.
I’ll have a full recap after Team USA’s quarterfinal with Russia.