Ever since the men's groups for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were announced, hockey fans have been looking forward to Saturday's anticipated matchup between the United States and Russia.
These two programs will always be intertwined due to that fateful Olympic semifinals contest at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., when a scruffy group of American college kids took down the mighty U.S.S.R. team against the backdrop of the Cold War.
But a lot has changed in those 34 years. While this matchup on Saturday doesn't hold nearly as much weight, it still figures to be an entertaining affair. Here's a look at the top storylines as we head into this heavyweight bout.
Date: Saturday, Feb. 15
Time: 7:30 a.m. ET
TV: NBC Sports Network
Replay: 6 p.m ET, NBC Sports Network
Live Stream: NBC Sports Extra
USA Looking to Keep Up Momentum
While it wasn't unexpected to see the Americans claim a tournament-opening win over a solid Slovakia squad, it was surprising to see the final score of 7-1.
There was no stopping Team USA in the second period, as the high-octane attack accounted for six goals in a span of less than 14 minutes. We knew that the American squad had some firepower, but the seven-goal display was more than impressive.
"I guess you never really expect to beat a team like that 7-1, and you never do it in a tournament like this," captain Zach Parise said, via Greg Beacham of the Associated Press. "We just capitalized on the chances we had, moved the puck well and used our speed."
Although their goal celebrations declined from elation to excitement to sheepishness while the score skyrocketed, the Americans answered any lingering questions about their offensive abilities and their aptitude on the big Olympic ice by decimating a Slovak roster studded with NHL players.
In this current format where four teams out of three groups are vying for automatic bids to the quarterfinals, Mike Halford of NBC Olympic Talk noted that goal-differential could play a huge role in the tournament. As such, the blowout could be big for the United States going forward.
But can they keep it up against the Russians?
It figures to be a fast-paced game and the Americans certainly have a speedy team. The group of forwards might not be as top-heavy as the one leading Team Russia, but the talent of depth line-for-line can't be ignored.
Russia's defense is clearly a level above Slovakia and is led by expected first-liners Andrei Markov and Slava Voynov. If they can break through, the Americans might be able to exploit goalie Semyon Varlamov, who looked shaky in a 5-2 win against underdog Slovenia.
Russia Looks To Improve After Slow Start
It's funny that a 5-2 victory can be described as a disappointment, but that was exactly the case on Thursday.
Russia jumped out to an early lead with goals from Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in the first four minutes of the game but seemed to let off the gas pedal from there, letting an underdog Slovenian squad stick around until the third period.
Roman Jedlicka of NOVA TV Sport in the Czech Republic offered some perspective on the David vs. Goliath qualities of this matchup.
There's no doubting the firepower of the Russian squad, which also has top talents at each and every forward position throughout their lines. When looking at the American defense, there isn't much Olympic experience and it will be interesting to see how the group holds up against one of the most powerful attacks you'll see in any realm of hockey.
Goaltending Comes Into Focus
If there's an area where the Americans hold an advantage over the Russians it's at goaltender, where their duo of Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller is more reliable than the pair of Varlamov and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Quick performed well in America's early victory, making 22 saves and earning a second straight start against the Russians.
Meanwhile, Larry Lage of the Associated Press described the situation in Sochi following Varlamov's opening performance.
The surprising result led one Russian reporter to tell coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov it would be a "death sentence," to leave goaltender Semyon Varlamov in net against the U.S. on Saturday.
Yes, they're taking hockey pretty seriously here — perhaps as much as Canada did during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Varlamov, who plays for the Colorado Avalanche, gave up two goals on just 14 shots and needed to kick his right leg out to deny Anze Kopitar when the game was still in doubt.
With such potent attacks on both sides of the ice, shots on goal will be inevitable. Now it's time to see who's got the best player in between the pipes on Saturday.
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