What was expected to be the gold medal game heading into the Olympics has now become a fight just to get to the medal round-- after tonight, one of these nations will be going home empty handed. It will be by far the biggest game of the tournament, and arguably, the biggest game some of these athletes will play in their entire lives.
Russia has decreed these Olympic games the most important in the country's history; Canada has as well. Since the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow, these two countries have traded blow after blow in international competition, forging one of the greatest international rivalries the sport has ever seen. It will be a game for the ages. It will be a game that changes nations. It will will a game that alters the course of hockey history.
It will be a game that hopefully won't end in a shootout. Because that would just be lame as all hell.
In preparation for today, FTF sat down (in our chairs at home) to answer some questions over email about the game. Enjoy our dialogue, enjoy the game. Should be one whale of a barnburner.
1) What is the most important thing tonight?
Plank: The first goal. I know that can be considered one of the sports greatest cliches, but at the end of the day I think giving up the first goal to Russia could sink Canada, and vice versa. The energy in the building is going to play a big part tonight-- Canada has been gripping their sticks pretty tight thus far, and if one gets through Nabokov early I think they loosen up a bit and start to effectively counterpunch on a Russian team that can sometimes overcommit in the offensive zone. Watch the zebras as well, as both teams power plays are loaded with talent. Special teams will be huge. A stupid penalty from Chris Pronger like the one he took against the Swiss buries Canada if it happens again.
TCY: Scoring, early. I think this is going to be an absolute slugfest, and I think that the team who scores first will be the eventual winner of the game.
Ivano: First goal is going to be a huge factor. If Russia scores, Canada will be forced to open up and play offensive hockey, thus possibly exposing holes in its defense and letting Datsyuk, Ovechkin, Malkin, Semin and others roam free on odd man rushes. If Canada scores first, they may be tempted to play even more defensively, and Luongo just may deliver. Finally, if Canada wants to win this game, they will have to have a lead or at least have the game tied going into the 3rd period or else the enormous pressure the team will be under may become unbearable.
2) Nabokov vs. Luongo-- who wins this battle.
TCY: Although I'm going to say that Nabokov wins the one on one battle with Luongo, I don't think Luongo has to have the game of his life to win this one. If Nabby plays like we know he's capable of, he could definitely steal this game for Russia. However, if he slips, it could get out of hand quickly. Luongo has a much bigger margin for error.
Ivano: Nabokov will no doubt face more shots in that game, but facing 40+ shots is something he's used to this season, so I'd take him if I had to pick between the two. He beat Canada four years ago at the Olympics, and he beat them two years ago in Quebec during the World Cup. Luongo has not faced any serious competition in this tournament up to this point, and Russian offense is as big of a threat as he'll face here at the Olympics. The Russians may not put as many shots on him as Canadians would put on Nabokov, but it will be the quality of shots from such unpredictable players as Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk and Semin that will make a difference.
Plank: Both goaltenders can steal games, that much we all know. I think playing in front of the hometown crowd is going to be a double-edged sword for Luongo. On one hand he has been stellar in Vancouver, posting a .929 SV% at home compared to .907 on the road this season-- last year it was an eerily similar .929 vs. .910. On the other hand, the pressure Team Canada is under right now trumps anything Russia will be facing considering the Games aren't on their soil. Nabokov has been the Sharks MVP this season in my opinion, and he is playing some of the best hockey of his life right now. My gut says Bobby Lou, my heart says Nabby. I think I'm going with my gut.
3) Russia's high powered offense vs. Canada's blueline.
Ivano: Canadian defense has not impressed me up to this point. They're still trying to find their chemistry, as demonstrated by two goals scored by Germany, and they are not fast enough in the transition game. Russia is positioned to expose that weakness through their mobile offense, especially if Canada will continue to turn the puck over the way they did against the Swiss and the Americans. Russian speedy centers Malkin, Datsyuk, Fedorov and Zinoviev (who may still play tomorrow) thrive against these kinds of teams.
Plank: Weber, Doughty, Keith. Those are the three Canadian defenseman who have had a good Olympics thus far in my opinion. That being said, I have a feeling the entire unit brings their A game tonight against the world's most dangerous offensive team and manage to limit their opportunities-- Bobby Lou cleans up the rest. If Canada recommits to the physical style of play that they are known for, the KHL lines for Russia may be caught on their heels a bit. The Americans hemmed in Canada with a strong forecheck, and I'm just not convinced the bottom six of Russia can do so. Bykov learned from his mistakes against the Slokavs and gave most of the KHL less ice time against the Czechs and I think he has to continue to do so if he wants to beat Canada, but not at the expense of burning out his top six with long shifts. It's a fine line to walk.
TCY: I think the defense is going to decide who comes out ahead here. Although you can argue that the one team's forwards or netminder is better than the others, Canada wins the defensive battle hands down. Although don't think Russia is terrible on the backend, I like Canada's forwards against Russia's defense, more than the other way around. Canada's D has had issues with the quicker teams in the tournament, but there's too much talent on that back end. I think they play a solid game, and limit a powerful Russian offense.
4) Which result benefits the San Jose Sharks the most once the Olympics have concluded?
Plank: Toughest one to pick, and I don't think it will change much at the end of the day. Maybe a loss to Team Canada lights a fire under the players even more, or maybe a loss for Nabokov forces him to elevate his game come playoffs. Or maybe it doesn't matter at all. If this determines the level of play we can expect in April then I'm concerned. All these guys are professional athletes who are able to deal with the ups and downs of the sporting life, and the playoffs should be enough motivation for them as is. On a side note, The Sporting Life would be a great Indie band name but would probably be annoying as hell and open at Coachella for two straight years before fading into obscurity.
TCY: Four is better than one, right? I think that Canada's Sharks benefit more from a win here, as they could hopefully shake the "choker" label (hasn't happened so far), and head into the playoffs with a bit more confidence. Nabokov, though, has been the Sharks MVP all season. I'd like to see him continue his strong play, because that is important to the Sharks success going forward.
Ivano: I've always been of the opinion that Sharks are not going very far in playoffs this spring if Nabokov loses his confidence. When he's confident and he's on the winning streak, he's very hard to beat. Solid game and a win by Nabokov against the powerhouse Canada in the long run will not only give confidence to him come playoffs time, but will also instill confidence into the rest of the Sharks squad who will know that in the high pressured game Nabokov can still deliver the best hockey of his career.
5) A bold prediction for the game, and who are you pulling for.
TCY: I think the boldest prediction I can make is for a big game from Joe Thornton. Call me crazy, but I think that he's going to have a solid night against Russia, scoring at least 2 points en route to a Canadian victory. I'll take Canada, with a final score of 5-4, over the Russians. Should be a crazy game to watch.
Ivano: No shock who I'll be cheering for. Russia 4 Canada 3, with two goals by Ovechkin (who loves the prime time and thrives in games when all of Canada is watching him), and one from Kovalchuk and Gonchar. Canada weeps and turns to Russian drinks for comfort while millions of Russians flood the streets at 5am Moscow time, also drinking Russian drinks. Whatever the outcome, vodka industry benefits the most.
Plank: Canada 5, Russia 3. I'm pulling for Canada all the way to a silver medal against the United States, but if Russia ends up winning I hope they get to the finals as well. If you watch one game today, make it this one. Not because USA-Switzerland is a throwaway, but because this is going to be the premier hockey event of the season until the Stanley Cup Finals. What a great day to be a sports fan.
Puck drops at 4:30 PST on CNBC.