By Steve Silverman
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Olympic hockey often represents the game played at its best. When the United States played Canada in the 2010 gold medal game, the show was spectacular.
Zach Parise tied things up for Team USA with a late goal before Sidney Crosby won it for Canada with an overtime goal that none of the Canadian flag-waving fans in Vancouver will ever forget.
There could be a number of scintillating matchups in this Olympic tournament and the first of those will be played early Saturday morning between the United States and Russia.
In Russia, this game is being promoted as a rematch of the famous 1980 U.S. upset of the Soviet Union in Lake Placid. The Russians believe this is the game that can wipe away the damage Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, Jack O’Callahan and the rest of our boys did some 34 years ago.
In reality, that game has little to do with this one. Instead, you have two elite teams that are legitimate gold medal contenders. The Russians have the superstars in Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, but the Americans have perhaps the fastest and most physical team in Sochi.
Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Callahan and Parise looked like they had played together for a full season as they ripped apart a strong Slovakian team by a 7-1 margin in their first game of the tournament. The Slovaks have Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa, but you would not have known that either one of those superstars were on the ice if you didn’t look at the box score.
The Americans blitzed the Slovaks with six second-period goals — six! — and that’s the kind of explosiveness that could allow this team to come away with gold in this tournament. Still, it’s early and Team USA is going to have to demonstrate consistency, not just flash its ability.
Team Russia, which looked a little lethargic in its 5-2 win over Slovenia on Thursday, has to be shaking in its boots as it waits to play this game. There’s only one result that will be good enough, and that’s bringing home the gold medal. This is a preliminary game, and if the Russians happen to lose to the Americans, they could conceivably come back and win the tournament.
That’s the route that the Canadians followed in 2010, as the Americans took apart the Canadians on their home ice in an early game before the classic championship game. But there’s a big difference between the Canadians and Russians. The Canadians were an extremely close team that never splintered after their defeat.
The Russians have issues. Datsyuk is playing with a balky knee and he could be on top of his game one day, and struggling the next. Malkin may be the most talented all-around player in the world, but he has not always displayed great chemistry when playing international games with Ovechkin.
And then there’s the Great 8, himself. Ovechkin wants to win gold and he wants to carry his team. He only knows one way to play and that’s to fire away whenever he gets the opportunity. It has worked for him on an individual basis, but his Washington Capitals have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs and there’s something missing from his game.
Look for the United States to exploit this issue. The Americans played their first game in the tournament as if they are seeking retribution for losing the 2010 championship game in overtime. While that’s probably overstated, this is a powerful and compelling team capable of beating anyone.
Look for the Americans to beat the Russians on their home ice.
If you get up early to watch it, it will be worth the lost sleep.
NHL EXECUTIVES, FANS WATCHING IN FEAR
Rangers fans should be breathing a sigh of relief. So far, they haven’t had to contend with any of their players getting injured in this tournament.
Detroit Red Wings fans have not been so lucky. Despite having pain in his back much of the season, Henrik Zetterberg went to Sochi to help Sweden pursue a medal. He did not play in Sweden’s 1-0 victory over Switzerland Friday morning and is out the rest of the tournament due to a problem with a disk in his back.
Zetterberg reportedly can’t even fly back to Detroit to get his back checked out because the pain is too severe for him to get on a plane for 10 hours. There’s a chance that he will recover with rest, but there’s a much greater chance that he needs surgery and that his season is over.
Couple Zetterberg’s injury with Datsyuk’s knee problems, and the Olympics could ruin the Red Wings’ season.
It could happen to any team, and that’s the price that any team could be forced to pay as this tournament progresses.
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