Game vs. Team USA crucial for Russia's hockey hopes in Sochi
The Game: USA vs. Russia; 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN in the U.S. and TSN in Canada.
Enough with the miracle: If the 1980 loss in Lake Placid wasn't the greatest defeat in Russian hockey history, it is certainly the one that the men in red have had to hear about the most ... and honestly, they're tired of it. It's been an open wound on the national psyche for 34 years and it requires a special salve. This may be just a round-robin game; but it might also be the only shot the Russians get at Team USA in this tournament. And with an entire nation needing some kind of reassurance -- if not revenge -- on home ice, this is a chance Team Russia can't afford to waste.
Quick's job to lose: We still don't know much about Jonathan Quick's ability to backstop Team USA after his quietly efficient 22-save effort in the 7-1 victory over Slovakia on Wednesday, but coach Dan Bylsma's decision to come right back with him for this critical game speaks to the desire of the coaching staff for Quick to take the ball and run with it. The big game experience he acquired during the Kings' run to the 2012 Stanley Cup proved that he can play with little or no margin for error. That's exactly the kind of pressure he's likely to face in this one.
Missile defense: With Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Semin and Alex Radulov, the Russians have the most explosive top six in the tournament. Each one is capable of inflicting damage by himself with his speed or his shot or his creativity, but as a group they seem almost impossible to contain. Bylsma reconfigured his defense pairings specifically for this game, creating two shutdown pairs to handle the task. He'll have Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin skating together, likely against the Malkin-Ovechkin-Semin unit, with Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh taking on the Kovalchuk-Datsyuk-Radulov line.
The U.S. blueliners will be challenged, but their matchups should be more competitive than Russia's response to Team USA's attack. The top four -- Slava Voynov, Evgeni Medvedev, Andrei Markov and Fedor Tyutin -- is a B-grade group at best. Russia's ability to withstand a furious pounding from the American forwards, and efficiently transition the play out of the zone will be critical to the home team's chances.
Who to watch for Russia: Who else? Ovechkin is the face of Russia at these Games, and the pressure is clearly on him to deliver the goods after the personal and team failures of Vancouver. It's not a chance for revenge against Canada -- which steamrollered Team Russia 7-3 in the Olympic quarterfinals in 2010 -- but this game is Ovechkin's shot at making a statement to his country that he's up to the challenge of bringing home the gold.
Who to watch for the USA: While the rest of the team was padding their stats at the expense of Slovakia's comically inept defense, America's first line muddled through a quiet debut. Zach Parise, expected to be a focal point of the offense, was almost invisible, registering no shots while being blanketed by Zdeno Chara and Andrej Sekera. Look for the captain to be a more prominent figure on Saturday, especially down low in the Russian zone.
What to expect: Fasten your safety belts and ensure that your seat is in the upright and locked position. This game should be fast from the start and accelerate quickly as both sides look to exploit their explosive speed and quick strike ability to gain an early advantage. It could go back and forth as the two teams trade chances, but in the end, the depth and tenacity of the Americans will be too much for the hosts to handle.