No Olympic men's hockey game in the group stage bears more significance than the epic bout between the United States and Russia.
Each squad is loaded with big-name stars ready to push for gold in Sochi. While the Russians own the home-ice advantage with plans on avenging the "Miracle on Ice" game 34 years later, the U.S. started the Winter Olympics on fire, torching Slovakia in their first match of Group A play, 7-1.
You don't need to be a die-hard hockey fan to recognize some of the players taking the ice on Saturday morning. Some of the game's most electric scorers will face off, and the U.S. has a championship-winning goalie on its side.
Several stars are taking a hiatus from the NHL to vie for Olympic glory, but here are a few of the game's brightest stars on display.
When: Saturday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 a.m. ET
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome, Sochi, Russia
TV: NBC Sports (also re-airing at 6:00 p.m. ET)
Live Stream: NBCOlympics.com
Players to Watch:
Jonathan Quick, G, USA
The biggest question on every U.S. hockey fan's mind was who will guard the net for Team USA during the Olympics. Our answer finally arrived when the Los Angeles Kings' Jonathan Quick earned the starting nod.
Quick became a household name by leading the eighth-seeded Kings to a Stanley Cup title in 2012. Team USA is now counting on him to reel off another dominant run to guide his squad to the promised land.
Based on coach Dan Bylsma's comments per ESPN.com's Scott Burnside, Quick's job does not appear to be in jeopardy at the moment:
"He played real well in Game 1. I thought there were periods of inactivity in that game, and he had to stay sharp, stay focused, and it was followed by two or three big saves he had to make," Bylsma said on Friday.
Quick has not enjoyed his finest season behind the net, posting a .911 save percentage with 2.18 goals allowed per contest. He'll need to be at his finest to handle Russia's brutal attackers, led by this man...
Alexander Ovechkin, RW, Russia
Alexander Ovechkin was put on this planet to score goals. Here is his chance to show the world.
The Washington Capitals star led the NHL with 40 goals before the Olympics interrupted his dominance. To achieve his scoring fix, he'll look to pummel the U.S. and lead his nation deep down the Olympic bracket.
It didn't take him long to force the puck into the net in Sochi. During Russia's opening tilt against Slovenia, the 28-year-old initiated the scoring in Russia's 5-2 victory. The world's top scorer will now be expected to do it again against the Americans.
Few athletes have as much eyes glued on them as Ovechkin. He'll take star billing in arguably the most anticipated event for the host nation. But while he was still handling his NHL duties in January, he dismissed any worries about the pressure to The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin:
We just have to make people happy. And if you want to make people happy, you have to win the games and medals. Of course, everybody knows we going to have some problems with that pressure. But that’s good pressure. It’s going to be fine.
He'll certainly make the home fans happy by topping the U.S. on Saturday.
Phil Kessel, F, USA
On the other side, the Americans boast a well-balanced attack of potent scorers. There are quite a few players to slot here.
Now 25 years old, Patrick Kane is more experienced in his second Olympic appearance. He has also flourished into a star with 63 points so far this season. Zach Parise fought the U.S. to overtime in 2010's thrilling gold-medal match versus Canada.
But instead, let's focus on a man who can emerge as the squad's unsung hero: Phil Kessel.
He started the Olympics off right, collecting one goal and two assists during Team USA's opening victory over Slovakia. This should not come as a surprise considering he went to Russia as the NHL's only player who accumulated more than 30 goals and assists apiece before the break.
James van Riemsdyk, Kessel's teammate in the Sochi Games and with the Toronto Maple Leafs, told the Toronto Sun's Rob Longley what it's like to play with Kessel during his hot streak: "He's on fire, it's fun to play with him," van Riemsdyk said. "The game is coming really easy to him right now. He's working hard and creating a lot."
Kessel's unselfishness personifies the team's Olympic game plan, and the 26-year-old is the perfect glue guy to keep the squad together.
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