Is it Saturday yet?
As the United States throttled Slovakia, 7-1, in a contest much more lopsided than many expected, and Russia ultimately overwhelmed Slovenia, 5-2, it was hard to shake the thought of what might happen when the two heavyweights of Group A collide in two days.
It could be the best matchup of the preliminary round, which is often defined by blowouts and expected results. With both Russia and the United States facing heavy expectations and vying for a bye in the quarterfinals, the matchup could set a tone for the group and each team’s opening wins offered an idea of what may be to come.
The Americans prepared for Sochi with gold as the only objective — following their silver-medal finish four years ago in Vancouver, this group wants to take the next step. On Thursday, after a rather obvious blown offsides call led to a goal for Slovakia’s Tomas Tatar early in the second period, the United States showed that they’re quite serious about those aspirations.
One of the United States’ greatest strengths is its all-around depth. The Americans don’t have the firepower, top to bottom, of Canada, but six players scored in the rout — including the Capitals’ John Carlson — and five different players scored in their six-goal, second-period outburst. They chased Jaroslav Halak (yes, Caps fans, the villain of the 2010 playoffs) after hanging five goals on him and eased some concerns as to how they might fare on the larger Olympic ice.
But a generally well-respected Slovakia squad doesn’t pose anywhere near the challenges that Russia’s video game-like offense will for the Americans’ young and largely inexperienced defense.
While Slovenia gave the Russians a scare that reinforced concerns about the hosts’ defense, this is a team that can score at will. Quick goals in the first four minutes by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin – who each posted the primary assist on the other’s tally – showed that dangerous line at its best.
There’s a mesmerizing quality about the Russians’ fluid style that takes full advantage of the big ice. As they curl and swoop through the larger neutral zone they seem to lull opponents into focusing on the wrong skater, thus creating better opportunities for the true threat on any unfolding play.
This isn’t a group that is going to fight for second and third chances and if teams can disrupt the Russians’ offensive flow and force them to play more of a grinding, NHL-style game, things could get interesting for the hosts.
That may be what Saturday comes down to. Can the United States’ group of defensemen – four of the seven that suited up against Slovakia are making their first Olympic appearance – find a way to shut down Russia’s all-star offense that features a top six of Ovechkin and Malkin with Alexander Semin and Pavel Datsyuk with Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk while the world watches?