Monday, August 27, 2007

Game 1: Canada-Russia Super Series

August 27th, 2007: the day the Canada-Russia Super Series opened, and also the day the new rink opened in Ufa, Russia - with the last-minute help of the Russian Army, equiped with tools. Nothing like playing hockey on brand-spanking-new ice when the temperature indoors nearing 100F. Makes for a lot of bouncing pucks...

To be honest, I expected Russia to have the clear edge in this game. The Russians had practiced together for a longer period of time, they had played two exhibition games together against RSL teams, they weren’t fighting a 10 hour time change, and they were playing to a home crowd. I thought that the Canadians would likely lose the game, but take the opportunity to work the bugs out and try to develop some team chemistry.

I definitely didn’t expect Canada to win the game 4-2.

I don’t think that I can say enough good things about goaltender Steve Mason. He displayed a calmness in the net that would make most NHL goalies envious, and this calmness was evident from the very start. He let in two goals in the first 10 minutes of the game, and I thought that this was more a reflection how the team was playing as a whole. Mason should have stopped the second Russian goal, but he didn’t let this mistake rattle him. His positioning in the net was excellent and it allowed him to stop shot upon shot, without rebounds. Goalies Leland Irving and Jonathan Bernier will also get starts in net in Games 2 and 3, but they will have a tough time stealing the job from Mason after that.

As alluded to, Canada didn’t start the game on a good note. The team as a whole appeared nervous, which led to many turnovers and bad penalties. Coach Sutter wanted Team Canada to set the tone of the tournament by really playing a physical game with Russia, but that physical element was absent on the Canadian side in the first portion of the first period – it was Russia who laid the body on Canada. After Russia scored their 2nd goal of the game, a power play goal at 10 minutes, Stefan Legein responded by scoring a goal for Canada. Just 45 seconds later, Kyle Turris was awarded a penalty shot, which he capitalized on. These goals helped Canada to gain confidence, and the tables started to turn in their favour.

The second period saw Canada extend their lead by two goals, thanks to contributions by Brad Marchand (the only Maritimer in the Series) and Sam Gagner – they each had a goal and an assist in the 2nd period. There was clear chemistry among the players, and they all stepped up their play. Canada wanted the puck, and they played well with (and without) it. This attitude continued into the third period, which saw the Russians play with a desperate tone and begin diving to try to draw penalties.

Canada often gets into penalty trouble on the international stage – like at this year’s World Championships – and this game was no different. There were 14 penalties called on Canadian players, two of them being called while Canada was already shorthanded, leaving Russia with 12 power play opportunities and two 2-man advantages. By comparison, Canada had 5 power plays. What saved Canada was their PK, as they allowed only 1 power play goal in the game. Claude Giroux and Turris seemed to work well together on the PK, and Brandon Sutter played a top-notch defensive game.

The big question mark over Canada’s head coming into this game was defence, and I thought that Canada’s D was pretty good today. The Karl Alzner/Drew Doughty tandem worked well, and the defencemen seemed to be in position to help Mason most of the time. What certainly helped were the defensive forwards – the shut down line of Milan Lucic, Sutter and Legein were effective in containing Alexei Cherepanov, who was virtually invisible in this game. Since Coach Sutter places such a high priority on defensive responsibility, I’d look for Canada’s defence to get stronger as the Series rolls on.

There are a number of things that Canada did right in this game:

- players blocked shots

- they set a physical tone (although it did only come late in the first period)

- they won key face-offs, and

- they kept their composure when behind or on the PK.

In order to have continued success in the Series, Canada must decrease the number of turnovers. They must also adjust their game so as to not take as many penalties, while still keeping a physical game – international referees prove time and time again that they call a very tight game. Third, Canada must continue to be defensively responsible (and I'd like to see their defence get better) because the Russians had a number of really good chances today that would have been goals had Canada not been there to clear the puck. Finally, I’d like to see the Canadians spend more time in the offensive zone and get more shots on goal - the Russians seemed to dominate in the SOG deparment.

My picks of the game:

* Brandon Sutter

** Steve Mason

*** Karl Alzner

Honourable mention to Kyle Turris, who scored a penalty shot, won key face-offs, and smashed his face on the boards. Ouch

Game 2 will be Wednesday at 10AM AT on Rogers Sportsnet.

By the way, it was odd to hear Pierre McGuire providing colour commentary from the press box. His voice was so calm and quiet - unlike his loud volume, rink-side performances on TSN and NBC.

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