In terms of the storyline, the caliber of teams involved and, most importantly, the standings implications, there won't be a bigger game played during the preliminary round of the men's hockey tournament at the 2014 Winter Olympics than tomorrow's Group A showdown between Team USA and Team Russia.
The host country faces off against a fellow gold medal contender in a matchup many in the Russian media are already building up as a 34-years-late revenge game for the United States' miracle on ice. The teams combine for 38 NHL players in addition to two former NHL superstars in Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov on the Russian side. And whoever wins this game in all likelihood will win the group and therefore earn a bye to the quarterfinals.
Both clubs are coming off opening-game wins on Thursday, with the United States having blown out Slovakia 7-1, tied for the largest margin of victory in any game so far at this tournament, while Russia dispatched Slovenia 5-2 in what was something of a disappointing win, if such a thing exists, for the Russians against the weakest team in the group. They'll be ready for this one, though, and with a packed and partisan Bolshoy Ice Dome feverishly cheering them on, it's hard to say Team Russia isn't the favorite here.
USA coach Dan Bylsma has reconfigured his defense pairings in anticipation of facing a top six for Russia that's unparalleled in its skill level. Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh will likely match up against Kovalchuk, Radulov and Datsyuk while the Pittsburgh Penguins' standard shutdown pairing of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin will probably draw NHL teammate Evgeni Malkin and his wingers Ovechkin and Semin. Both pairings feature a left-shooting defenseman on his off-side, which might traditionally be viewed as an issue, but with Russia's top two left wings both right shots, perhaps that will work out in the Americans' favor and make it easier for Martin and McDonagh (who seem likely to be the ones to man that right side) to deny Kovalchuk and Ovechkin entry into the scoring area. If the damage done by those top two Russian lines can be minimized, Team USA's depth should be able to win out. But that's a big if.
|1-0-0, 3 points
||1-0-0, 3 points|
|1st in Group A
||2nd in Group A
4:30AM PST | Bolshoy Ice Dome | Sochi, Russia | TV: NBCSN
Projected Team USA Lineup
Projected Team Russia Lineup
Alex Ovechkin - Evgeni Malkin - Alexander Semin
Ilya Kovalchuk - Pavel Datsyuk - Alexander Radulov
Nikolai Kulemin - Artem Anisimov - Vladimir Tarasenko
Alexander Popov - Alexei Tereshenko - Valeri Nichushkin