MINSK, Belarus -- Team USA has bested Alexander Ovechkin and his Russian teammates twice in the last year, each when the stakes were high. First came an 8-3 thrashing in the quarterfinals of the 2013 IIHF Men's World Championship. Then, the U.S. posted a dramatic 3-2 shootout victory at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Undoubtedly, Russia has a measure of retaliation on its mind heading into tonight's matchup.
The longstanding hockey rivals – both of whom are off to 2-0 starts at the 2014 IIHF Men's World Championship – square off tonight in Minsk in a highly anticipated preliminary round contest.
Tampa Bay Lightning rookie of the year candidate Tyler Johnson – who is tied for the tournament lead in scoring with four points (1G, 3A) – is eager to get his first taste of the ballyhooed rivalry on the men’s world championship level.
“Russia is obviously a country that has a good hockey team and we always have great games against them that mean a lot,” said the 23-year-old rising talent. “We don’t expect it to be any different tonight. They’re one of the best teams in the tournament, so it will be a hard game and a lot of fun.”
U.S. forward Craig Smith is one of four players on the 2014 U.S. roster who contributed to the lopsided 8-3 affair of one year ago. The eight U.S. goals were the most allowed by a Soviet Union or Russian hockey team in the history of the world championship.
Smith spoke of the keys to combatting Russia’s explosive offense.
“They like to play fast, play off turnovers and get the puck to the net,” said Smith, who notched five assists in the 2013 victory over Russia. “We have to be aware, have good sticks, limit our turnovers throughout the neutral zone and make sure we don’t give them too many odd-man rushes.”
New Russian national team head coach Oleg Znarok said that the U.S. has a “fast, young, and skilled team,” however he also noted that they showed vulnerability in the early stages of their first game against Belarus, allowing ample scoring opportunities.
One doesn’t need to be a hockey visionary to deduce that Ovechkin and his comrades will come out fast and furious in front of a pro-Russian crowd in the former Soviet republic of Belarus. In Russia’s 4-2 victory over Finland Sunday night, Viktor Tikhonov and Ovechin both scored in the opening five minutes.
“One of the things that has caught me about them is that right off the bat they’re starting very well,” said U.S. head coach Peter Laviolette, who is coaching his third U.S. Men’s National Team. “In the first seven minutes they’re up by one, two, or three goals, so we’ll have to make sure we’re ready to play right from the beginning.”
Contrary to the Sochi Olympics, Ovechkin is off to a respectable start at this championship contributing two goals and an assist in Russia’s two triumphs. As always, trying to limit the time and space of “Ovi” and his blistering shot will be paramount.
“He’s dangerous, he has a terrific shot. He always draws conversation because of his ability to score goals, his size, speed and the physicality that he plays with,” Laviolette said of Team Russia’s captain. “We’ve got to do a good job against their entire team though, but he’s certainly one of the guys leading the charge.”
“It’s obvious he has one of the best shots in the world,” Johnson added. “You can’t let him have open space with that quick release and deadly shot.”
After two wins in three nights, Russia’s top goaltender Sergey Bobrovski will receive the night off. Starting in the nets for Team Russia will be 19-year-old Andrei Vasilevski, who will make his men’s world championship debut.
The Tampa Bay Lightning first round draft pick, who played in the Kontinental Hockey League this past season, is touted to become Russia’s next goaltending sensation. However, an early goal or two could certainly shake his confidence.
For the Red, White and Blue, Tim Thomas has been rock steady in two wins stopping 47 of 50 shots for a 1.50 goals against average. Laviolette and the youthful U.S. squad – that has an average age of less than 25 – surely feels confident having the accomplished 40-year-old goalie backstopping them against such a dangerous opponent.
Monday night’s “Clash of the Hockey Titans” at Minsk Arena begins at 8:45 p.m. local time. NBC Sports Network will begin live coverage at 1:30 p.m. ET.