Thursday, September 6, 2007

Game 6: Canada-Russia Super Series

Team Canada rocked the arena last night in Winnipeg, clinching the Super Series’ victory in front of a home crowd. Tonight, the teams will face off in Saskatoon, which will be a homecoming of sorts for Logan Pyett and Luke Schenn. No one expects Team Canada to let up on the Russians – the Canadians have their sights set on sweeping the series. The question is whether they have enough gas in the tank after the heavy travel schedules. Also, how will the Russians respond? Will they completely fold now that they have officially lost the Super Series, or will they fight to avoid the 8-game sweep the Canadians are so desperate to attain?

If you only see the final score, 4-1 Canada, you would think, “Wow, Russia got pounded again.” Well, the game was much closer than the final score suggests.

As I’ve done before, I’ll start by talking about goaltending. The Russians started Varlamov tonight, which surprised me since his last two starts were disasters. I have to give him credit, though, because he kept his team in the game in the first two periods, when Canada had almost double the shots on goal as the Russians, but kept the score tied at one coming into the third. There were times when he got really lucky, because he was a little out of position and the Canadian skaters had a lot of net to shoot at.

Leland Irving turned in another fine performance tonight, giving up only one power play goal in a game that saw the Russians play their best hockey of the Super Series. Team Russia really began to turn it on in the second period, and it was Irving who kept them at bay. I truly believe that Irving was the difference maker tonight.

Canada’s offence started out good. They maintained pressure in the offensive zone, forced turnovers in the neutral zone and attacked whenever possible. I found that they kept up their great defensive positioning, which led to good offensive chances, but they were only able to capitalize once in the first 40 minutes, on a Gagner power play goal in the last minute of the first period. I also have to give props to my boy Brandon Sutter, who scored his first goal of the Series tonight – and it was a shortie at that. He won’t be a goal-scorer in the NHL, but he’ll have a long career and will win Selke Trophies a plenty.

The second period saw Canada play probably their sloppiest hockey of the entire Series, at least from an offensive point of view. They enjoyed an extensive 2-man advantage as the Russians kept taking penalty after penalty, but they couldn’t get it together. No one was in the slot, and they had a hard time handling the puck. That, combined with the fact that the Russians showed up and competed in the first two periods, meant that Canada couldn’t capitalize on their second period power plays.

Canada seemed to fix their mistakes in the third period and scored three goals. My guess is that Brent Sutter had a couple of words with the guys during the second intermission. If they had failed to fix this blip in their game, I think that the Russians would have won. They were flying high after the second period and that huge PK, but their balloons were deflated when Canada started scoring.

Overall, Team Canada played well defensively. Big thumbs up to Alzner and Doughty, both of whom have continued to be star defencemen on this team. Their names might not be on the score sheet that much in this Series, but their value has been unreal. And Doughty is yet to be drafted into the NHL – are D-men this young supposed to play so well?

From a physicality point of view, there were some big hits in this game, but it wasn’t a really physical game. I got the feeling at times that Team Russia didn’t want to engage in physical play, though they upped this part of their game as they found their spunk in the second period.

I suspect that fatigue has started to set in for these players, and it was evident tonight. They just came back from halfway around the world, played one game in Winnipeg, turned around and played another game the following night in Saskatoon. Thankfully they get a day off, and I hope that Sutter lets them rest in Red Deer. I don’t really see the point in having that much of a practice because there isn’t that much to fix in their game.

The one thing that probably gave Canada the win tonight was goaltending because Leland Irving made a number of saves when the Russians started to apply boatloads of pressure.

Canada needs to be able to avoid those offensive meltdowns that we saw in the second period. They’ve already won the Series, so now they need to find that extra motivation to drive their play and get them through the fatigue. They have to remain in control of the play at all times and avoid sitting on their heels.

My stars of the game:
* Leland Irving
** Brandon Sutter
*** Drew Doughty - Karl Alzner tandem

Friday night’s game in Red Deer is a late-nighter here in Atlantic Canada (11PM AT on Sportsnet), but it should be good. It will be Brent Sutter’s last game in Red Deer before moving to Jersey to coach the Devils. The arena should be a lot louder there than at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, and hopefully the boys will be ready to go.

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