Canada vs. Russia: Defensive Play of Offensive Juggernaughts Is the Key

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IFebruary 24, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 16:  Shea Weber of Canada skates against Norway during the ice hockey men's preliminary game between Canada and Norway on day 5 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 16, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The weight of two nations will be on the shoulders of each team tonight as Canada and Russia battle it out in what might be the most highly anticipated quarterfinal game in Olympic hockey history.

It certainly has a chance to be the most watched game in history.

We all know the storylines.

Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin, the two best players in the NHL going head-to-head with a cast of the best offensive players in the league by their side.

Offense versus offense. Snipers versus snipers.

The stories are all the same, but if one team is going to take control of this slug fest tonight, it's going to be the team that steps up their game on the blue line, not in the goal scoring department—though a few of those won't hurt either.

Both Canada and Russia have been less than stellar defensively so far in the tournament, each team suffering a shocking loss on their way to a projected matchup in the Gold Medal game between the long-time rivals. That didn't happen, and here they are now in a quarterfinal matchup instead, but with no less meaning.

The loser of this game will leave the 2010 Olympics as a major disappointment, while the winner will move on to a worst-case scenario of a chance at a Bronze Medal.

The Russians did not come into this as one of the most highly-touted defensive teams, but a loss to a feisty Slovakia team was not in the plan. They were outworked and outplayed by a team far inferior to them on paper, especially on defense.

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And if that happens again to a powerful Canadian team, it could be lights out early—even with the potent offensively-stacked lines they can throw out on the ice.

Tonight the load will be the heaviest for three Russian defenders: Sergei Gonchar, Anton Volchenkov, and Andrei Markov. Three players who are used to being a cornerstone for their NHL clubs during the season will feel the pressure like never before from a non-stop onslaught of Canadian talent coming at them wave after wave.

As shown in Canada's last game against Germany, when all the lines are clicking there is no rest. They simply keep coming at you hard and fast.

But the same can be said for Canada, who will be facing an offense like they haven't seen in this tournament so far. A first line of Ovechkin, Alex Semin, and Evgeni Malkin might be the most dangerous in the Olympics, and there aren't any defenders in the league who could stop a line like that on their own.

It's going to take a serious team effort to handle that, not to mention the second line that has the talent of Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk barreling down on the net.

It has been an especially tough tournament so far for grizzled veteran Chris Pronger, who saw his ice time cut down significantly in the last two games. He has not been that rock they had expected, but tonight must be different. His size and strength will be key against the shifty Russians buzzing around the ice.

On the other end of the spectrum has been the play of sophomore Drew Doughty, who officially has had his international coming out party. He has been the best defender for the Canadians, and has been rewarded with plenty of ice time to show his stuff. Not only has he been solid in his own end, but he is a clear offensive threat and is always willing to jump up in the play.

His skills will be tested like never before in this game, already used to facing the opponent’s best players, but not superstar lineups like this. No one is used to what is about to come at them tonight—well, no one except captain Scott Neidermeyer.

Neidermeyer has played, and won, in essentially every tournament and league the hockey world has to offer, and his play so far has been much better than one might expect from a man who is nearing the end of his playing career.

It will take a guy like that to lead the way against this Russian club. His experience will be the starting point for the younger guys on the defense core who will then be looked at to carry much of the load.

So yes, the game has the potential to be one of the best hockey games we have ever seen in history. And that's no overstatement. With the players that will out on the ice tonight, it could be an offensive display like never before. But that's what everyone expects.

The winner will advance to the semifinals because of their play on defense, and it won't be easy.

Just a few hours away now, no doubt the players are already pacing in the hallways and getting locked in to what they hope is the best performance of their lives.

On the biggest stage of their lives, in front of the biggest audience any of them will have ever played in front of, these two offensive juggernauts will no doubt light the lamp repeatedly.

But with the weight of a nation on each of the shoulders, it will be the defensive play of one of these teams that puts them one step closer to their goal. A goal that will have the weight of their nation shifted from weighing them down to lifting them up as Olympic Champions.

Buckle up.