Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bring on the Russians

Epic battle awaits, and it's only the quarter-final

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VANCOUVER-- Talk about Russian things ahead of schedule.

What was widely considered a drool-worthy gold medal final in Vancouver has suddenly become a quarter-final for the ages on Wednesday -- Sidney Crosby's Canadians versus Alex Ovechkin's Russians.

So already this much is certain: One of these medal favourites is going to leave the 2010 Games extremely disappointed and empty-handed.

And, frankly, the notion of the home team getting ousted from a podium finish in Vancouver, let alone minus the colour of gold, is a sobering notion, indeed. That's right, we just used the words "hockey", "gold" and "sober" in the same sentence.

Tension, anyone?

Well, not that anyone wearing a Maple Leaf would admit.

"It's something that we probably thought sooner or later would happen," Crosby said, still sweating from a 8-2 Team Canada romp over Germany in Tuesday's qualification round. "So it's not a huge surprise. It's going to be really intense. We all expect that."

Perhaps, but no one expected that the host team would have to qualify just to reach the quarter-finals, then suit up the very next night against arguably the most dynamic group of Russians in a generation: Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Semin, Ilya Kovalchuk.

That's why they're called The Federation.

"That's a big rivalry," Crosby acknowledged. "We all know it. It's something that everybody's been talking about. We just didn't think it would be in the quarter-final. The fact that it's them just adds more to it.

"It's going to be a battle. I expect it to be a pretty incredible atmosphere."

If by "incredible" Crosby means "incredibly anxious for an entire country that would mourn an Olympic loss for about four years," then, yeah, it will be incredible.

Interestingly, however, the 2010 Games might mark the first time in the history of a Russia-Canada showdown that the questions -- primarily from Russian reporters -- directed at Canadians involve whether or not they will be intimidated by the hard-charging, high-octane Ovechkin, who earlier in the tournament almost knocked Jaromir Jagr back to the Czech Republic.

"What would be the reaction if he landed a hit like that on Sidney Crosby or one of your smaller guys?" one foreign journalist asked Babcock.

The Canadian coach digested the question and replied: "My coach in junior used to tell us, when we were playing real bad, he'd say, 'Just skate around for a few minutes with your head down (and get woken up). If we're not going well, maybe that would be a good idea.

"But, obviously, you don't want to get caught in the train tracks," Babcock added, getting serious. "We know he's a big body. We play against him all the time. We understand what he does and how he plays. There'll be no secrets for them about us and vice versa.

"It should be a heck of a game. I know he (Ovechkin) will be excited. I'll know Sid will be excited. All our players will be excited."

OK, everybody else excited yet?

On the upside, the Canadians did shake out of their offensive doldrums against the Germans, while starter Roberto Luongo -- inserted after Martin Brodeur's fish-out-of-water performance in a 5-2 loss to the U.S. on Sunday -- was given an opportunity to find his bearings in the Team Canada net.

Luongo, a Canuck who is literally playing home games in Vancouver, didn't have to be advised that the heavy lifting was about to begin for a Canadian team that will have to win three straight games against the best the world has to offer in order to win gold.

"They're shooters," Luongo said of the Russians. "We can't give them too much time and space to make plays out there. I know when those guys have the puck I'll be looking for shots and I'll be ready."

Will it be the biggest game of Luongo's career?

"Of course, it has to be one of the biggest," Luongo replied, before flashing a sly grin. "Hopefully it's not the biggest one coming up this week."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

 

CANADA VS. RUSSIA

When: Today, 6:30 p.m. CT.

Where: Canada Hockey Place, Vancouver

At stake: Winner earns place in the semifinals against Sweden; loser is done.

SCOUTING RUSSIA:

Finished first in Group B (featuring Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia) with two wins and a 2-1 OT loss to the Slovaks.

Evgeni Malkin led all Russian scorers with five points in the round robin, including three goals.

Alexander Ovechkin had four points (two goals, two assists) but everyone in the tournament is buzzing about his crushing hit on Czech star Jaromir Jagr that led to Malkin's game-winning goal.

Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks started two of Russia's three games in goals, winning both and posting a 91.11 save percentage.

Balanced attack has all 12 Russian forwards having picked up at least one point in three games while eight different players have scored goals.

Lineup features 14 NHLers but also includes nine KHL players.

Sergei Gonchar is playing in his fourth Olympics. It will be the third Olympic Games for three six players (G Ilya Bryzgalov, D Andrei Markov, F Maxim Afinogenov, F Pavel Datsyuk, F Sergei Fedorov, F Ilya Kovalchuk).

TODAY'S OTHER QUARTER-FINALS:

Switzerland vs. United States, 2 p.m.

Winner of Czech Republic vs. Finland, 9 p.m.

Winner of Slovakia vs. Norway (late) plays Sweden, 10 p.m.

-- Ed Tait

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2010 C3

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