When the United States and Russia meet in group play on Saturday, it will be a clash of medal contenders and the only game between two members of international hockey's "big four" prior to the start of the Winter Olympics' elimination games.
Which team holds the advantage?
One way to answer that question is to compare the two clubs' rosters position by position, based on the lines they used in Olympic action on Thursday. That's precisely the aim of this piece: to compare the two teams' lines and establish who, on paper at least, should be favoured to come away with a victory.
Read on for this comparison of Russia and the United States.
LW James van Riemsdyk, C Joe Pavelski, RW Phil Kessel
Team USA's top scoring line has three good players, but it is powered primarily by Phil Kessel, who has emerged as one of the best offensive players in the world today. He had three points against the Slovaks in an American win on Thursday and is without question the catalyst here.
LW Alexander Semin, C Evgeni Malkin, RW Alexander Ovechkin
The top line for Russia has arguably two of the world's three best players on it. There isn't a line in the tournament that can match the offensive firepower the Russians have here, nor is there another team in the tournament that has two generational players on a single line. Malkin had three points against Slovenia in Russia's opener.
With due respect to Team USA's top line, the Malkin/Ovechkin duo should be the best in the tournament.
LW Dustin Brown, C Ryan Kesler, RW Patrick Kane
The one negative in Team USA's big win over Slovakia was the play of this line, which was actually out-chanced by the Slovaks. It should come around; Kane is one of the most talented scorers in the world and Kesler is a phenomenal two-way player.
LW Ilya Kovalchuk, C Pavel Datsyuk, RW Alexander Radulov
This line features two of the best players in the world not currently in the NHL; both Kovalchuk and Radulov are major league-level talents who have shown a preference for playing at home. Between them, Datsyuk is one of the best players in the world, period—a superb two-way threat and power vs. power forward.
These lines are structured similarly, with Kane likely better than Kovalchuk at this juncture and Datsyuk a less physical but much superior version of Kesler. Add in Radulov, an electric offensive talent on the big ice, and Russia takes the edge.
LW Zach Parise, C David Backes, RW Ryan Callahan
One of the things we have seen to date with Team USA is an inclination toward spreading out the firepower, and it results in an awfully good third line. Backes is a first-line centre in the NHL and Parise an elite two-way forward; add in a defensive winger capable of scoring, and the Americans have an incredibly capable shutdown line.
LW Nikolai Kulemin, C Artem Anisimov, RW Vladimir Tarasenko
Russia's group isn't chopped liver, either. Kulemin is one of the NHL's most underrated players, a defensive forward with goal-scoring ability, and Anisimov adds size and a range of skills to this line. Tarasenko, like Backes, comes from the defensively responsible Blues system and adds scoring, too.
The Russian third line is good, but the American third line is one of the best checking units in the tournament.
LW Max Pacioretty, C Paul Stastny, RW T.J. Oshie, RW Blake Wheeler
This is a very strong group. Stastny is a top NHL centre and these wingers are all top six-calibre players in the majors. The three primaries here are nicely balanced too, with a mix of scoring, playmaking and defensive acumen.
LW Valeri Nichushkin, C Alexander Popov, RW Alexei Tereshenko
There are certainly good things to say about the two KHL veterans and the NHL rookie who brought up the bottom of Russia's roster in its last game at this tournament. Nichushkin adds exceptional physical gifts and some scoring, while the two Russians add veteran savvy and two-way play.
The most telling comparison is that none of the three Russians would have made Team USA.
LD Ryan Suter, RD Paul Martin
While both of these players are left-handed shots, Martin has extensive experience on the right side, making that less of an issue. Both are top defencemen for competitive teams in the NHL, and Suter is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate and a real workhorse on the back end.
LD Andrei Markov, RD Vyacheslav Voynov
Russia's top pair features a pair of very good NHL players, both of whom play important minutes. It's a pairing long on skill, smarts and vision and short on size; they can move the puck quickly but won't necessarily be a great fit for clearing the front of the net.
This one is somewhat arguable, but the American pairing is just a better all-purpose unit than the Russian version.
LD Ryan McDonagh, RD Kevin Shattenkirk
McDonagh is a true No. 1 defenceman at the NHL level and a worthy fit as the key player on a strong second pairing. Shattenkirk's credentials are good, but he has spent less time playing the toughest available competition. He struggled against the Slovaks.
LD Alexei Yemelin, RD Evgeni Medvedev
This duo was likely united for instant chemistry, as both players have a long history with Ak Bars Kazan of the KHL. Medvedev is a big veteran acknowledged as one of the KHL's top rearguards, while Yemelin is a big shutdown specialist who excels in difficult matchups.
The talent level here is a lot closer than it looks at first blush, but McDonagh is the best of these four players and an exceptional second-pair player on any Olympic team.
LD Cam Fowler, LD Brooks Orpik, RD John Carlson
The Americans have a versatile array of players to fill out the bottom pairing. Fowler is an evolving top-pair defender with Anaheim with his strong defensive game, while Orpik is a shutdown specialist for Pittsburgh.
Carlson, the best player of the three, has a skill set that falls between the two, providing better offence than Orpik and better defence than Fowler. With Fowler, Carlson is a nice fit for offensive zone work, and with Orpik he's a nice fit for defensive zone work, giving the bottom three the ability to play any role.
LD Fedor Tyutin, LD Anton Belov, RD Ilya Nikulin, RD Nikita Nikitin
Russia's bottom two defence pairings are loaded to the gills with size, as all four rearguards come with above-average frames. There's a lot of talent here, too; all four players are capable of moving the puck. That blend of size and puck skills is formidable.
The Russian group is competent, but the American side is a cut above that by international standards.
Starter Jonathan Quick, Backup Ryan Miller
The United States has a highly capable tandem, employing two proven NHL No. 1 goalies, both of whom have excelled in pressure situations. Goaltending was expected to be a team strength for the U.S. in this tournament, and there is no reason to revise that expectation at this point.
Starter Semyon Varlamov, Backup Sergei Bobrovsky
The Russians too have a pair of NHL starters in the crease. Varlamov has a somewhat checkered career but is having an exceptional season in Colorado, while Bobrovsky is unproven over the long haul but won the Vezina last season as the NHL's best goalie.
The American goalies are simply more proven and more highly regarded than their Russian counterparts.
Going through the rosters of these two teams line by line, we find that the Russian Federation faces an uphill battle. Outside of the top six forwards, the United States holds the edge in every category.
- First Line: Russia
- Second Line: Russia
- Third Line: United States
- Depth Forwards: United States
- First Pair: United States
- Second Pair: United States
- Depth Defencemen: United States
- Goalies: United States
It's going to be a question, then, of whether the Americans' advantages of depth and on the defensive side of the puck are enough to outweigh Russia's extremely formidable forward group.