Alexander Ovechkin and his Russian team will face the United States on Saturday… (Alexander Nemenov / Getty…)
SOCHI, Russia — The mystique that surrounded hockey players from the old Soviet Union and Russia vanished when they began to populate NHL locker rooms and win many of the league's most important trophies. The team ethic prevails whether the guy sitting next to you is from Moscow or Moose Jaw.
But if the mystery is gone, the contrast in their games remains strong and should be evident when Team USA and Russia face off Saturday before an expected raucous crowd at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The U.S. has some fine goal scorers but no equivalent of Russia's top lines of Alexander Ovechkin-Evgeni Malkin-Alexander Semin, and Ilya Kovalchuk-Pavel Datsyuk-Alexander Radulov. Coach Dan Bylsma has no pretense about it.
FRAMEWORK: Best images from Sochi
"We don't match their skill and if we try to, we won't win," Bylsma said. "But we can be hard to play against and we can be an abrasive team that's going square, nose-to-nose with some of the best skill in the world."
Each team easily won its opener. The U.S. had balanced scoring in a 7-1 rout of Slovakia, and Russia overpowered Slovenia, 5-2. Ovechkin and Malkin scored on their line's first two shifts. Bylsma would be thrilled to see that when he's coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins and Malkin is playing for him. Not so much here. "I'm not excited about that," Bylsma said.
He's counting on Team USA's grit, the poise of pressure-tested Kings goalie Jonathan Quick — who will make his second straight Olympic start — and players who are eager to become a touchstone for their generation, just as the 1980 Miracle on Ice team did.
"It's amazing what they were able to do, come together as amateurs and beat professionals with all the political sidenotes that were going on at that time," center David Backes said after Team USA's practice Friday.
"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."
The U.S. strategy is to be rugged and physical and keep the puck off the sticks of the most skilled Russian forwards. Toward that end, Bylsma juggled his defense pairs Friday to create two shutdown duos. Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, who often fill that role for the Penguins, will get those duties again. The other pair will be Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh. Bylsma can get matchups he likes because the U.S. will be designated the home team, even though sentiment will overwhelmingly be on the side of host Russia.
Backes will play a key role too and will see a lot of Ovechkin's line. He welcomed the challenge.
"I think the atmosphere is going to be out of this world," he said. "In that building 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 and we look forward to that.
"And we also look forward to playing against some of the most skilled forwards in the world. There's a long list of them on that team and we're going to have to do everything we can to slow them down, make them play our style of grinding hockey. If we can do that, we've got a lot better chance."
Bylsma again chose Quick over Buffalo's Ryan Miller because he said Quick, though not challenged often in a 22-save performance against Slovakia, was sharp when necessary. "He's a great goalie and was for us in Game 1 and we're going to need him to be in Game 2," Bylsma said.
Even if it's not as dramatic as the old U.S.-U.S.S.R. matchups it's not just another game. Quick, who rarely displays his feelings, said there will be a lot of emotion in play Saturday.
"You're playing for your country. It means a lot," he said. "Everybody's looking forward to it. We can't wait to play. It's going to be a lot of fun. A soon as you step out it's all business and try to get the win."