There may be no bigger clash in the group stage of the Sochi Games' men's hockey tournament than this one between the host Russians and Team USA on Saturday.
Russia has some of the biggest offensive weapons, but the U.S. is a very balanced team with more depth than its European counterparts.
They sit first and second, respectively, in Group A action after their first games and both play again Sunday to complete the round-robin action. Only one will come away with a direct route into the quarterfinals. The other has to hope its record is enough to earn the fourth spot or be forced to play a qualifying contest.
Read on for more on each team and what it will take to come away with the advantage, as well as a prediction as to how it will end.
Winner (possibly) takes all
With both the U.S. and Russia winning their opening games of the tournament handily and swapping opponents Slovenia and Slovakia on Sunday, the Group A bye into the quarterfinal will likely come down to who wins this head-to-head battle.
Russia struggled somewhat in their opener Thursday, eventually pulling away for a 5-2 win over Slovenia, while the U.S. dominated in a 7-1 victory over the more NHL-worthy Slovaks to give the Americans an early edge in goal differential should they finish tied.
Who starts in goal?
These teams both boast solid tandems and could start different netminders than the opening game. The Russians had Sergei Bobrovsky as backup and the Americans had 2010 MVP Ryan Miller on the bench.
Both of these guys are expected to play at some point, but with the matchup being the most critical of the group games, it has been announced that Jonathan Quick will remain in the crease for the U.S. An educated guess leans toward Semyon Varlamov making his second straight start for Russia.
Will coaches mix and match?
The group games are an opportunity to experiment and seek out chemistry, but with the U.S. playing so well against Slovakia, it's difficult to imagine head coach Dan Bylsma making any major changes despite toying a bit with his lines in practice leading up the the opening contest.
Russia wasn't nearly as flawless against arguably the weakest team in the competition. But it doesn't have the same kind of forward depth as the other medal favorites, so tinkering would be minor with a top four of Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin planted firmly as the base for the top two lines.
Is Russia overrated?
It's early, but the host team is already being picked apart. The fact Slovenia scored a couple of goals is troubling, and the pressure on Russia is already extremely heavy.
This game will go a long way in determining whether or not Russia really has what it takes to make the medal rounds. The hosts could go completely off the rails if they fail to at least compete with the 2010 silver medalist.
- Dustin Brown – Ryan Kesler – Patrick Kane
- Phil Kessel – Joe Pavelski – James van Riemsdyk
- Zach Parise – David Backes – Ryan Callahan
- Max Pacioretty – Paul Stastny – T.J. Oshie
- Extras: Blake Wheeler, Derek Stepan
- Paul Martin – Ryan Suter
- Ryan McDonagh – Kevin Shattenkirk
- Cam Fowler – John Carlson
- Extras: Brooks Orpik, Justin Faulk
- Jonathan Quick
- Ryan Miller
- Jimmy Howard
- Alex Ovechkin – Evgeni Malkin – Alexander Semin
- Ilya Kovalchuk – Pavel Datsyuk – Alexander Radulov
- Vladimir Tarasenko – Artem Anisimov – Nikolai Kulemin
- Alexander Popov – Alexei Tereschenko – Valeri Nichushkin
- Extras: Viktor Tikhonov, Alexander Svitov
- Andrei Markov – Slava Voynov
- Anton Belov – Nikita Nikitin
- Alexei Emelin – Evgeny Medvedev
- Extras: Ilya Nikulin, Fedor Tyutin
- Semyon Varlamov
- Sergei Bobrovsky
- Alexander Eremenko
Pavel Datsyuk, Russia
The Russian captain was blanked in the first game, and while he says he's perfectly healthy, people will wonder until he goes about proving it with his play.
Russia needs more production offensively against the stingy Americans, and Datsyuk is one of the key forwards who will be relied on to lead the team in its toughest test.
Zach Parise, USA
Parise's goal-scoring ability wasn't required in the opener. But he's the kind of player who will be leaned upon heavily in tougher games.
He was clutch for Team USA in the gold-medal game back in 2010, scoring in the dying seconds to tie Team Canada and force overtime. This contest could prove to be the same kind of close competition that requires a timely tally.
Valeri Nichushkin, Russia
The Dallas Stars winger wasn't even expected to play on Thursday, but play he did. He showed the kind of skill that made him a top-10 draft pick last spring by scoring a nice goal on a rush.
He could even find himself bumped up the lineup as Russian coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov told reporters through a translator his team will need to make a few adjustments: "A few things might need changing, but we'll work on it."
Jonathan Quick was the man for the U.S. in the opener, and head coach Dan Bylsma will not be making a change for the first game of back-to-backs this weekend.
With Quick, who stopped 22 shots in the 7-1 rout Thursday, people will be confident that the Los Angeles Kings goalie is capable of shutting down the high-powered Russian offense. He has a .911 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average in the NHL this season, as well as respective career averages of .914 and 2.30.
Still no word on who will be between the pipes for the Russians. Sergei Bobrovsky started his NHL season flat for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he picked up his play in the last couple of months. His .918 save percentage this year is not as good as Colorado Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov's .924.
If there's a weak spot on the American roster, it's the back end. Aside from Ryan Suter, none of the U.S. defenders is undeniably the best on his NHL club's roster.
They left Dustin Byfuglien and Keith Yandle off the team because of questionable skills inside their own blue line, but the guys they selected aren't exactly shutdown dynamos.
That's not to say guys like the Anaheim Ducks' Cam Fowler, New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, St. Louis Blues' Kevin Shattenkirk, Pittsburgh Penguins' Paul Martin or Washington Capitals' John Carlson aren't capable of playing well.
But keeping tabs of a top six comprised of Russians Pavel Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Alexander Radulov is a challenge they may not be able to handle. Only Brooks Orpik and Suter have Olympic experience.
The Russian team is under a huge amount of pressure, playing on home ice with expectations of nothing less than a gold medal, and there's no bigger game in Group A action than this clash of the titans.
The Americans are Russia's biggest obstacle to winning the group and heading straight to the quarterfinals, which means emotions will be high on both sides. Russia has more top-end firepower on paper, but loses that advantage if it ends up taking penalties or making big mistakes and allows the U.S. to capitalize on power-play opportunities or odd-man rushes.
Even after the two dramatically different starts to the tournament, it's a bit of a coin flip for two teams that are expected to finish in the top four when all is said and done in the group stage.
Because of their depth, confidence and slight underdog status at the Games, I think the Americans will find a way to pull off the victory and ultimately sweep the group stage.
Predicted score: United States 4, Russia 3 (overtime)