Saturday morning will bring the most highly anticipated games of the entire preliminary round as the U.S. meets Russia. The electricity in the Bolshoy Ice Dome is bound to leap through your TV and you may require medical assistance, so watch this game with extreme caution.
In all seriousness, though, the way the rest of the Olympics have gone so far, this may be the best game yet. You’ve got two teams coming off high-scoring openers with Russia surviving a brief scare to take out Slovenia, 5-2, and the U.S. earned a surprisingly easy victory over Slovakia, 7-1. And one of the great international rivalries of the last 30 years.
When the two teams meet at 7:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Network, they’ll each face a completely different game than the ones they played previously. Two high-powered offenses with solid enough goaltending and maybe a question mark or two on defense. It should be a fairly wide-open game.
With that in mind, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the things the U.S. did against Slovakia that they’d like to carry over and a few things about how defending Russia will be different from that last game.
First, some notes…
Jonathan Quick gets the start against Russia in his second straight start. I think Dan Bylsma would have preferred Quick be tested more against Slovakia, but I have no problem with him going back to the Kings netminder for a second start.
When I asked a couple of former USA Hockey goalie coaches what the philosophy for dealing with Team USA’s goaltending situation was, they said regardless who Bylsma picks to start, once he made the decision to stick with it.
Getting into a rhythm and getting the team used to playing in front of Quick is important. Additionally, it tells Quick that he is the guy and it is his net to lose. If Quick falters, they have one of the best backups in the tournament in Ryan Miller, who you’d have to assume is more than ready to play if needed.
There were also some changes in practice in how the lines were designed for the Slovakia game. According to media in attendance, Zach Parise joined Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane throughout a long, high-paced practice. Dustin Brown went with David Backes and Ryan Callahan. Bylsma told reporters not to read too much into the lines, but I think that’s some interesting experimentation nonetheless.
Another switch in practice was reuniting Penguins teammates Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin in practice. Martin played a lot with Ryan Suter against Slovakia and gave Team USA its most utilized defensive pair, but now Suter was paired with Ryan McDonagh in practice. These are more likely to stay together.
I had wondered if Suter and McDonagh would be put together at some point and certainly they were ever going to play together on this team and if they do against Russia, I’d bet they play a lot. Bylsma is focusing more on his defensemen containing Russia’s forwards and this pair should be up to the task. They’re both familiar with big ice and they have the mobility to make the plays against the skill forwards from Russia. I think this could be a really intriguing mix.
When it comes to Orpik and Martin, Bylsma may want to pick his spots in how he utilizes them against the aggressively speedy Russians, but they work well enough together in Pittsburgh.
Here’s USA Hockey’s preview to which I contributed some thoughts.
Here’s five observations to keep in mind before the U.S. meets Russia.
1. Though they struggled to light the scoreboard up early on against Slovenia, make no mistake that this Russian forward crop is as deadly as there is in the tournament. The top line with Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Semin as well as the second unit with Pavel Datsyuk centering Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov are going to be dangerous throughout the game. Giving them time and space of any kind is going to lead to unfavorable results.
All four lines can score, though, and pretty much every player on the ice has an elite-level shot. That means Russia’s scoring area is larger than most teams’s would be. The traditional scoring chance home plate is obviously where they would be most effective, but this team can and will shoot from anywhere and with purpose. That allows them to really spread out the offensive zone.
Defending the Russian forwards is a challenge, but Team USA’s best bet is to be aggressive. Getting sticks on pucks as much as possible and playing a physical game within reason.
Russia thrives in creating offense in transition and will try to create off the rush a lot. Team USA’s speed is going to make that tougher.
The Russian forwards also use the entirety of the offensive zone. They love to get the points involved and those guys love to shoot it. The Russian forwards work the half walls incredibly well and they have enough patience to wait out their opponents until they make a mistake.
That’s why Team USA has to be really careful in the D-zone. Straying outside of the dots should be relatively infrequent unless there are loose pucks to be won. Keeping the middle of the ice congested will force Russia into bad-angle shots.
One thing the Russians did a lot in Slovenia was pass the puck a ton, giving up good shots for cutesy plays. I highly, highly doubt they will do that against the U.S. They played down to Slovenia in that regard and tried to be showmen instead of the goal-thirsty snipers so many of them are and should be.
Being aggressive and forcing them to make uncomfortable plays and force shots is the best way to slow down the Russian scoring attack and frustrating them.
2. One of the most important things Team USA has to focus on is getting a good start in the game. Russia would love nothing more than to put the U.S. on their heels early with a quick goal or some quality chances early.
If Russia is pushing and breaks one through early, it will be like blood in the water. They tend to get on rolls when you let them get going early.
An early commitment to aggressive play from all five skaters on the ice is going to be a big key. They have to be on top of pucks all the time.
While Russia thrives on good starts, they aren’t inept when playing from behind, either.
This team knows they have the ability to score quickly, which means the U.S. can never really get comfortable with any lead. It doesn’t take much to flip a game on its head, especially when Russia will have the home crowd on their side.
3. Offensively, the U.S. has to take advantage of its speed and dictate the pace of the game. They have to be the ones to establish the speed at which the game will be played because this U.S. roster was designed to be 100 miles an hour. They did that against Slovakia and after they were able to break through, the game was over.
Another thing the U.S. will have to do offensively is find ways to make successful zone entries. Russia tends to step up early in the defensive zone in transition. They’re looking to jump passing lanes and turn things the other way quickly. That can leave them vulnerable against a faster team like the U.S. because if a Russian forward or defenseman misses on picking off a pass, there’s not a lot of time to recover.
They try to get you to dump the puck early, but that’s not Team USA’s style. They have the speed and skill to make controlled entries and not relinquish possession.
Lastly, when the opposing team establishes posession in Russia’s zone, their D seem to sit way back towards the net and the forwards are all over the place. Against Slovenia at least, there was space in the high slot to get shots away. If the U.S. can get some sustained pressure in the zone, they have to make patient plays.
4. The two areas of discipline the U.S. needs to be on top of are when it comes to puck management and taking penalties. The U.S. cannot force plays in riskier areas of the ice like the offensive blue line or in the neutral zone.
There isn’t a team in the world that capitalizes on mistakes as well as Russia does. With their speed and ability to shoot, it doesn’t take much for them to turn a turnover into a goal. If the U.S. keeps the passes short and quick, they’ll be better off.
I haven’t seen yet who will be officiating this game. If it’s NHL officials, they’ll let more go. If it’s international guys, the U.S. has to tread carefully. Vladimir Putin will be in the building and the crowd will be a factor and that puts the U.S. at a potential disadvantage.
The U.S. cannot get caught in penalty trouble against a team this skilled. At every level, Russia’s power play is deadly. Staying out of the box will allow the U.S. to avoid that frightening attack and they’ll be able to maintain the flow of the game more effectively.
With the aggressive and “abrasive” (as Bylsma calls it) style of play, the U.S. wants to employ against Russia, there’s potential for infractions. As long as they pick their spots, there shouldn’t be as much of a problem.
5. The energy in that building should be unlike anything a lot of these players have experienced. The decidedly partisan Russian crowd was loud against Slovenia, but this is a big game with expectations. A lot of folks have wondered if Russia would shrink under the pressure. I don’t think so.
Saturday’s game will probably be the first really good look at how Russia deals with the pressure. I think the crowd will energize them more than anything else, which is why a good start is so important for Team USA. They’ll want to take the crowd out early.
It should be a fantastic game. Keep an eye out for Team USA’s lineup late tonight, hopefully and remember to check out CBSSports.com after the game for my Team USA column. We’ll also have a live blog for the game at this link.