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SOCHI, Russia -- Saturday's clash of early Olympic tournament titans, the United States and Russia, is a rivalry steeped in history and myriad personal connections.
Whether it's Ryan Suter's father, who played on the 1980 Miracle on Ice U.S. team or Zach Parise's father, J.P., who was part of Canada's seminal 1972 Summit Series against the Russians -- "The '72 series was the highlight of his career, playing against the Russians," Parise said earlier this week -- or assistant GM Ray Shero's Russian connection via his father, Hall of Fame coach Fred, whose visit to Russia played a large role in the elder Shero's coaching doctrine, the backdrop for Saturday's game is rich in storylines.
|If anything, says David Backes, 1980 can give this U.S. unit something to strive for.|
"I was only 11 years old but knew the names of all the players by heart, even though I grew up in an area where there was no ice," Dmitry Chernyshenko said.
"We all grew up in the culture that hockey is a religion in our country, and we were educated by this very dramatic story of the competition between our two great countries," Chernyshenko added.
But here's the funny thing: The history, the storylines are all something of white noise to the players who will decide the next chapter in this rivalry.
U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma was asked Friday how many times he was planning to show his team the movie "Miracle" chronicling the 1980 team's unlikely march to Olympic glory.
"Zero," he said.
"What those guys did in 1980," St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said after the team's practice Friday, "it's outstanding. It's amazing what they were able to do and to come together as amateurs beat professionals with all the political side notes that were going on at that time. But that's 34 years ago and we've got a crew that would love to write our own chapter, and maybe give the generation of kids that's playing hockey today something else to look forward to or strive to repeat.
"That's some motivation we have. But we've got to take it one game at a time and in the end that will take care of itself."
Make no mistake, this is the most important game of the preliminary round.
It's expected Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in attendance.
But this isn't about a clash of cultures. Hasn't been for a long time.
Instead it's a clash of gold-medal hopefuls playing for an opportunity to open up a more direct route to that goal.
"I think the atmosphere is going to be out of this world in that building," Backes said. "It's very tight with the crowd right on top of you. The fans as enthusiastic as they've been at the Olympics so far. They love their hockey and I'm sure it's going to be a rowdy, rowdy crowd. You look forward to that; you also look forward to playing against some of the most skilled players in the world, and they've got a long list of them on that team."
The winner of Saturday's contest will almost certainly win this group and earn a bye to the quarterfinals. The Russians will close out the three-game preliminary schedule against Slovakia, while the U.S. will close out Sunday against the first-time Olympians from Slovenia.
|Ilya Kovalchuk knows his Russian team was feeling the jitters in its opening game, but hopes that will change against the U.S.|
"It's important," former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk said after the Russians finished their late-day practice. "We were very excited for the tournament because it's at home; it's a special event for us for sure, but some guys, it was their first experience in the Olympic Games, so that takes a little nervousness, too. The first game is always important to win, but the second game -- we're going to play against U.S. -- It's a great opportunity to test ourselves. It'll be a great challenge for us.
"It'll be a fast game for sure, an exciting game. I think it will be tough, a lot of skating. On the big rink it's tough to hit but I bet you there will be a lot of hits, as well."
The Americans, for their part, were dominant in a 7-1 whipping of Slovakia in their first game.
The game featured a potent, diverse U.S. attack and very few nerves from a blue line that is dominated by young, talented but inexperienced, at least at this level, defensemen.
If the theory holds that to win Olympic gold means constantly evolving over the course of a tournament, then Saturday represents a next step for both of these teams.
The Russians, we imagine, will be less jittery in their second go-round and ice the top two offensive lines in the tournament with Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, who opened the scoring for the Russians early in their first game, and Alexander Semin followed by Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Radulov.
Reminded of the Russians' quick start against Slovenia (the Ovechkin line scored on its first two shifts), Bylsma joked that he wasn't all that enthused about facing the host Russians.
"Am I excited?" he said with a laugh. "I'm not excited about that. No, I'm not. I'm not excited about that.
"They have extraordinary skill, elite skill, and that's something that we have to be keenly aware of and know about their team. We'll be seeing maybe a situation where we have the matchup, so we do have the ability to maybe follow them a little bit more closely on the ice with our matchups.
"I think when you look at our pool draw, [we're] a little nervous about this being the second game. Slovakia being a test for our team and a big test in Game 1, but not to be overlooked is we knew Game 2 was against the Russians on their home soil, and we know how important it is for them to do well here and do well and win a gold medal here. This is going to be a huge test for our team tomorrow."
To counter the Ovechkin unit, Bylsma may go with a hard-checking forward line of Ryan Callahan, Dustin Brown and Backes, with Zach Parise moving up to a line with Ryan Kesler and Patrick Kane.
|Dan Bylsma is understandably nervous heading into the biggest game of the preliminary round.|
"I'm sure there's a lot of pressure on him here especially playing for his home country," Martin said. "He has his picture on the Head and Shoulders shampoo around here and stuff. It's big back here for him, and I'm sure he wants to win really bad, as do we, so it should be a good game tomorrow."
The defenseman said he is looking forward to the challenge of trying to keep the talented Russian unit at bay.
"For sure," Martin said. "I think as a defenseman you've got to take a lot of pride in what you do as far as playing against top lines and trying to shut 'em down and not give them a lot. I think it's no different here. They're going to be one of the most if not the most talented line out here.
"You just need to be that little bit more on edge as far as knowing where they are and not giving them those little opportunities because you can't give them a lot because then they'll take a lot."
The U.S. lineup will remain the same with defensemen Justin Faulk and Derek Stepan scratched, while Blake Wheeler will be the 13th forward.
With Orpik and Martin playing together, look for Ryan Suter, with whom Martin played against the Slovaks, to likely pair up with Ryan McDonagh and play mostly against the Kovalchuk-Datsyuk-Radulov unit.
Jonathan Quick will get his second straight start in goal after a solid turn in the Americans' opening win.
"Obviously I've been fortunate to be on some good teams in the past where we've played in some important, big games in other teams' arenas," Quick said. "You expect it to be similar to that. I'm sure there might be a little more emotions.
"But at the same time, it's a hockey game; it's played between the walls."