Saturday, September 1, 2007

Game 4: Canada-Russia Super Series

Yesterday, Team Canada faced a Russian team that was rallying over the loss of their superstar player, Cherepanov. Team Russia played a strong 40 minutes, but fizzled in the third period as Canada took the game and increased their series lead to 3 games to none. Will Team Russia be able to rebound and avoid being swept in their home country, despite losing several key players? And can Canada keep their collective foot on the gas, while staying out of the box?

First off, Brent Sutter allowed Russian head coach Sergei Nemchinov to bend the rules to allow three more players to his roster to replace guys who are out with injury. Sutter’s message to Nemchinov is simple: do what you want, add whomever you want - we’ll still beat you.

You can’t say that the Russians didn’t try in Game 4. This game was certainly their best, as they showed a lot of spunk and finally adjusted their offensive and defensive game for the better. That being said, Canada was able to match the Russian team and win the game 4-2; they take the series lead 4 games to none after battling intense heat and humidity, poor arena conditions, time zone changes and culture shock.

Mason was, once again, one of the best players in the game. He demonstrated excellent rebound control and didn’t lose focus. He was solid in net in the first period as he stopped 18 shots. He again shut down Russia in the second period. Mason did allow 2 goals in 30 seconds in the third frame, but that was primarily due to a defensive breakdown in front of him and not entirely his fault. I expect that he will play one of the last two games, likely Red Deer, to show his stuff on Canadian soil – he has certainly earned it.

From an offensive point of view, Canada wasn’t as dominant as in previous games simply because the Russians played a better game than in the past week. That being said, it is hard to find fault with Canada’s offence. They were able to force turnovers and counterattack on numerous occasions.

Marchand learned his lesson and managed to avoid a third 10-minute misconduct. He was rewarded with ice time and he capitalized today, with two goals and one assist. He has proven himself to be an agitator, a physical force, and a skilled player as well. Good to see from this Maritime kid!

Tavares is finally starting to get used to the big ice and the level of competition. As a result, Brent Sutter rewarded Tavares with more ice time today and a key role on the point of the power play – and Tavares scores his first goal of the tournament on the power play in the second period. I agree with Pierre McGuire in that Tavares should be a huge force to be reckoned with next week, when the Super Series resumes on small ice in Canada.

Claude Giroux is used to scoring goals in the Q, and yesterday he scored a highlight-reel goal from his knees. Well, today he made another play worthy of the SportsCentre highlight-reel as he lost his footing and kept the play alive by spinning around on his backside and assisting on a goal.

Canada’s defence was strong at times, and then not-so-strong at other times. Alzner and Doughty once again played a great game, Ellerby was solid, and Hickey probably had his best game of the series so far. However, I did find that Canada gave up a few too many shorthanded chances to a team that has already scored a shorthanded goal. The defensive breakdown in the third period gave the Russians two goals, but Canada demonstrated their ability to focus and bounce back. From this point on, Team Canada managed to cover the defensive zone and keep Russia from adding a third goal.

The physical tone of the Super Series continued today, and it wasn’t a one-sided affair. The Russians delivered a number of huge hits on Canadian players, one which upended Gagner and one on Perron which resulted in a 5-minute major and a game for Voinov. Perron struck back and delivered 2 huge, clean hits minutes later. I still think that Canada will up their physical game on home turf when they get the support of the home crowd.

I’ve mentioned the last number of days that Canada needs to stay out of the penalty box, and it looks like they listened to me today. Okay, so they didn’t exactly stay out of the box, but they only had 8 penalties. Russia also had 8 penalties, but they found themselves in two situations where they were down 2 players. By and large, this game seemed to be called fairly well, with the penalties called actually being penalties – unlike yesterday’s game with the phantom calls.

As the series shifts to Winnipeg, Team Canada needs to make sure their defence remains solid because the Russians can capitalize when given the chance. Canada also needs to continue doing the little things: blocking shots, taking hits to make plays, delivering clean hits, forcing turnovers and so on. They also have to stay out of the box because it’s only a matter of time before they give up a second power play goal.

My stars of the game:
* Brad Marchand
** Steve Mason
*** John Tavares

Even though we’re only halfway through this series, I have a feeling that, the one thing that has made the difference in this series has been the coaching. My guess is that the Russian Hockey Federation is not happy with Sergei Nemchinov’s attempt at coaching this national team.

The Canadian leg of the Super Series begins Tuesday in Winnipeg at 9PM AT on TSN.

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