Quarterfinal clash: Armageddon comes early to Canada, Russia
Most fans expected Canada and Russia to meet in the gold medal game
This rivalry has 38 years of vibrant history, oozing respect and antipathy
Roberto Luongo will find out if he's a money goalie -- not just a rich one
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- With three minutes left in Canada's 8-2 controlled scrimmage over Germany, the raucous, red-wearing crowd at Canada Hockey Place began the chant: "We want Russia. We want Russia."
They were not alone. Basically the entire neutral hockey world wanted Russia and Canada.
They just didn't want it in the quarterfinals.
Armageddon comes early to the two biggest and two best hockey nations in the planet. At 4:45 p.m. Vancouver time Wednesday -- that's 3:45 a.m. Thursday in Moscow, so set those alarms in your dacha -- the most compelling game of the tournament (with apologies to Team USA) will commence.
This is Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby. This is Hockey Night in Canada vs. Hockey Morning on the Volga. This is Mike Babcock vs. Slava Bykov, two of the best bench coaches in the world. This is 38 years of vibrant history, oozing respect and antipathy. This is consecutive victories by Russia over Canada in the past world championships, including in Quebec City in 2008. This is Malkin and Kovalchuk vs. Iginla and the Sharks Line. This is Roberto Luongo in his home rink, trying to prove he is a worthy successor to Martin Brodeur in Canada's goal. This is Pavel Datsyuk, the best defensive center in the world, trying to blanket the Crosby-Jarome Iginla-Eric Staal line.
This is not merely a showstopper. This is a nation stopper. It will be high deaf in the arena, high-def outside it. "I thought we'd have the opportunity to play them," Babcock said. "I didn't think it would be this early." "This is something everyone's been talking about before the Olympics," Crosby said. "Whether they thought it was going to happen in the quarterfinals or whenever, the fact is we have a big quarterfinal game. And the fact that it's them just adds more to it. I expect it'll be a pretty incredible atmosphere." If you ask whom Canadians view as their biggest hockey rival -- and some polling firm did recently -- the surprising answer was the United States. Somehow the pollsters found the only respondents in the country devoid of any genetic memory. Despite the intensity of the Canada-U.S games since 1996, those clashes are mere dalliances into this serious business of rivalry -- often thrilling but mostly empty. Russia is the real deal. It has been since the Summit Series of 1972, which was a where-were-you-when moment in Canada like the Kennedy assassination and the moon landings were in the United States.
When SI posited to Prime Minister Stephen Harper last November that a Team Canada appearance in the Vancouver 2010 gold medal game would represent the most important game ever contested on Canadian ice, he demurred. Harper, a hockey historian, argued for Game 2 of the 1972 series, a Canadian victory in Toronto that came in the wake of a thumping the Soviet Union had laid on an unsuspecting team in the opener in Montreal. Given the Cold War grace notes that adorned that series and the fragile psyche of the nation that September, Harper might be right.
The rivalry is a Canadian heirloom, passed down from father to son and now daughter, cherished by generations. Although only one player on Team Canada was alive during that Summit Series -- Brodeur was four months old -- the passion that was forged in that eight-game series was bred in their bones. The enormity of Canada-Russia is such that it is difficult to disengage the past from the present, to view a 60-minute game -- maybe with 10 minutes of overtime plus a shootout -- as a stand-alone and not in the historical context. But here goes. These are some things to look for:
By virtue of being the higher seed, Russia is the home team and has the last line change. Bykov can run out any line he chooses -- the top two are Evgeni Malkin centering Ovechkin and Alex Semin and Datsyuk in the middle between Ilya Kovalchuk and a re-born Max Afinogenov -- and force Babcock to respond. Babcock is a proponent of playing best-on-best, which would mean in a perfect world that Crosby's line would be going head-to-head with Ovechkin's. But Team Canada's coach has not been looking for matchups through four games in the Olympic tournament even though no NHL coach is more adept at getting them on the road than Babcock. The more significant match-up, from a Canadian perspective, is the defense pair that draws against Ovie and Friends most of the time. Team Canada has no obvious shutdown pair, but Shea Weber has been its best defenseman. Bykov presumably won't run away from Weber-Scott Niedermayer because he won't want to disrupt the flow of his lines, which include one composed of KHL players. "We really haven't been matching defenseman in the tournament," said Chris Pronger, who has played primarily with Dan Boyle. "I think we're confident in any of the pairs that are out there."
While all the elements are in place for dazzling firewagon hockey, the preliminary games suggest something quite different. Toss out lopsided wins over cupcakes -- Canada over Norway and Germany, Russia against Latvia -- and there was not exactly a torrent of goals. Russia scored four in two games while Canada managed just two prior to a shootout against Switzerland and three in the loss to Team USA.
The chemistry experiments should be over. Bykov began the tournament with Datsyuk on the top line, but dropped him down. Meanwhile, Babcock has looked like Bill Nye the Science Guy. Crosby has played with Iginla, Rick Nash and Patrice Bergeron on his right flank. He has had Nash, Mike Richards and Staal on his left. Bergeron has gone from first line winger to faceoff specialist and penalty killer. Richards has gone from the fourth line to the first and back to the fourth. Brent Seabrook started playing with his Chicago defense partner Duncan Keith, but at times you haven't been able to spot Seabrook with the Hubble Telescope. At least Canada seemed to jell against Germany as Crosby's line dominated, Joe Thornton scored and even Nash managed to find the net late with his left-handed shot from his natural right side.
Roberto Luongo is home. Luongo supplanted the estimable Brodeur after his miserable game against the Americans, looking fine if not always commanding against the overmatched Germans. Said Babcock, "We need [Luongo] to be fabulous tomorrow." While Luongo has not always been known as a big-game goalie, he has an opportunity to rewrite personal history. "He's a big man who takes up a lot of net," Babcock said. "He's not going to let pucks go under him" -- Brodeur's flaw Sunday -- "or through him. If they put one around him, we'll just go back to center ice and line up for the faceoff. His bank account shows he's a pretty good goalie." Now he will get a chance to show if he's a money goalie, not just a rich one. The hockey world holds its breath ... and the remote control.