United States-Russia Preview
Russia didn't entirely live up to lofty expectations in its first Olympic game on home soil, but that showing would be more than forgiven if it can claim victory in the most highly anticipated preliminary matchup in Sochi.
The inside track to a first-place finish in Group A and an accompanying bye into the quarterfinals will be on the line Saturday when Russia takes on the United States.
These countries haven't met in Olympic action since a 5-4 Russian victory in group play in Turin. Before that, the Americans claimed a 3-2 win in the 2002 semifinals before winning a silver medal. Russia went on to win bronze for its most recent medal.
And of course, no one has forgotten the United States' "Miracle on Ice" triumph over the former Soviet Union in a 1980 semifinal, when the Americans eventually won their most recent gold.
Fairness notwithstanding, anything less than gold for Russia in Sochi would be viewed as a massive disappointment within the host country.
The Russians didn't exactly incite adulation with a 5-2 win over Slovenia on Thursday. They started with goals from Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in the opening 3:54, but clung to a 3-2 lead after two periods before pulling away with two more scores in the first eight minutes of the third.
Malkin added two assists while Alexei Tereshenko also had two.
"We started well, got the lead and then we stopped playing," Ovechkin said.
Semyon Varlamov was suspect in goal, stopping only 12 shots. Varlamov had been lackluster entering the NHL's Olympic break, posting a 3.39 goals-against average over his last nine contests for Colorado.
Russia enjoyed its home-ice advantage Thursday as the game drew 11,653 spectators.
"We know that this is their home country," U.S. center David Backes told the NHL's official website. "They've been getting a lot of attention, they've got a lot of firepower, and there will be no need for motivation on their side. We'll need to match that."
While the Americans drew only 4,119 on Thursday, they showed the potential to be just as explosive offensively as Russia has been touted to be by claiming a 7-1 victory over Slovakia.
After a slow start, the U.S. broke out of a 1-all tie in the second period with six unanswered goals over a 13:51 span.
"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. "We just capitalized on the chances we had, moved the puck well and used our speed."
Paul Stastny scored twice, while James van Riemsdyk, Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane and T.J. Oshie each recorded two assists.
"For the first time on the big ice for most of us, I thought we did pretty well," Stastny said. "Our strengths are our puck possession and our speed, and we were really able to use both of them. All four lines just kind of clicked, and so did our D-men."
Coach Dan Bylsma will again start Jonathan Quick after he made 22 saves in his Olympic debut. Ryan Miller, who was named the tournament MVP after helping the U.S. win silver in Vancouver, will remain Quick's backup.
"We're dealing with a position of strength when it comes to the goaltender decision," Bylsma said.