By Sean Hartnett
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Everything went exactly according to plan for the United States in its dominant 7-1 Olympic hockey opening victory over Slovakia. The Americans blitzed their shell-shocked opponent with waves of speed and skill.
The Americans were tenacious and hard to move off the puck, their lines meshed with immediate chemistry and goaltender Jonathan Quick didn’t have to break too much of a sweat. Perhaps just as importantly, the U.S. won by six in a tournament that counts goal differential as a tiebreaker in post-preliminary round seeding.
If Thursday’s victory over Slovakia can be considered a breeze, Saturday’s 7:30 a.m. (4:30 p.m. Sochi time) meeting with host nation Russia will be a stern examination of the medal prospects for both teams.
There isn’t a lot separating the Americans and Russians on paper. Russia’s three-headed monster of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk is the most fearsome trio of forwards at the Sochi Games. USA’s forward lines might not boast equal star power, but its four lines are deeper and the Americans have an edge on the blue line and in net. Both teams possess fast skaters and excel in the transition game.
Yet, there will be no shortage of “Miracle On Ice” hoopla on Saturday. Certainly, what happened in Lake Placid, N.Y., 34 years ago was the greatest and most celebrated sporting moment in our country’s history. The story of a ragtag group of college students knocking a Soviet Union hockey empire off its mighty perch and restoring America’s collective resolve in trying times will continue to be passed down from one generation to the next for eons.
But this game isn’t about clinging to past triumphs or settling scores. The current group of Americans donning patriotic-themed Nike sweaters in Sochi is not an underdog and Team Russia is attempting to rebuild itself into an international superpower.
ATMOSPHERE WILL BE A TREMENDOUS FACTOR
There will be a deafening roar every time Russia marches up ice. Expectant Russian spectators believe that this group is capable of finally delivering on its promise following recent Olympic letdowns.
Listen and you will hear the noise grow louder and louder as the Russians move the puck closer to Quick’s net.
The uproarious atmosphere will present a challenge to the focus of the Americans. Constant chants of “Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!” will become so loud that they will be difficult to tune out. Even if the U.S. grabs leads, the crowd will not be quieted.
Russian stars like Datsyuk described the atmosphere as “unbelievable” following Thursday’s 5-2 win over Slovenia. It was almost as if the Russians had an extra wind at their backs, pushing them forward — and expect it to continue.
THE PRESSURE IS ON QUICK
Head coach Dan Bylsma is sticking with Quick after he made 22 saves in his first start for Team USA in any competition.
The majority of Slovakia’s shots did not trouble Quick, but that won’t be the case on Saturday as superstars Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk will almost guarantee a heavy workload.
Even though Quick owns a Stanley Cup ring and a Conn Smythe Trophy, he has never encountered an atmosphere quite like the wall of noise he will face on Saturday. Should he help the U.S. pull out a victory over the Russians on Russian soil, he will propel himself into iconic territory and will be brimming with confidence as the tournament moves into next week.
U.S. PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Despite Paul Stastny’s two-goal performance against Slovakia, Phil Kessel stood out as the most dangerous player in the opener. Kessel, who had three points, tortured the Slovaks with his elusiveness and creativity.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ winger packs a powerful shot and one of the quickest releases in the sport. Kessel’s game is all about explosiveness. The Russians do not boast the strongest of blue lines, which really plays to his strengths.
Kessel is enjoying the finest season of his eight-year NHL career as is on pace to put up 88 points. He is one of the hottest players on the planet at the moment.
American centers David Backes and Ryan Kesler are known to play disruptive, shutdown roles to perfection. Both have a rare ability to neutralize some of the greatest stars in the NHL because they are gritty, tireless workers.
They know how to get under the skin of opponents and must make life difficult for Russia’s top-gun stars.
RUSSIAN PLAYERS TO WATCH:
With names like Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, it’s easy for 18-year-old Valeri Nichushkin to fly under the radar of some American hockey fans.
Nichushkin scored in his debut against Slovenia. This kid oozes upside and raw ability. Even legendary Czech winger Jaromir Jagr predicted Nichushkin to one day become the best player in the world.
The best way to describe Nichushkin is he’s a supernova on skates. His game has been likened to both Malkin and Rangers’ star Rick Nash. He’s fast, physical and strong on the puck.
Nichushkin is scary-talented and the next big thing. The Dallas Stars were very fortunate when he fell to No. 10 overall in the 2013 draft.
Another young Russian to watch closely is 22-year-old St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko. His game has grown in his sophomore year in the NHL and he will continue to develop in leaps and bounds as he gains experience.
Tarasenko is the kind of player that you do not want to see on the puck in one-on-one situations.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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