SOCHI, Russia -- After a convincing 7-1 victory over Slovakia in its 2014 Winter Olympics opener on Thursday in Sochi, the U.S. face a daunting challenge on Saturday against host nation Russia.
How will the U.S. contain arguably the NHL’s best player, Alexander Ovechkin?
Ovechkin currently leads the NHL with 40 goals this season, and in nine seasons he has scored over 400 times. Preventing him from scoring is not expected to be an easy task for Team USA.
Head coach Dan Bylsma may consider sticking defensemen Brooks Orpik on the Washington Capitals star. Bylsma has employed this strategy when his Pittsburgh Penguins have faced the Capitals in recent seasons, and it has had some success. Orpik is in his fourth season of being primarily deployed against Ovechkin at even strength, and during that span, the Penguins have held Ovechkin to just two even-strength goals.
Orpik recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Ovechkin is a great player, but he can be contained.
“The only time you can really have success is if you have a good gap on him and get him early in the neutral zone,” Orpik said. “If you let him get that head of steam, he backs you off, and then, you're in a lot of trouble. Of course, the more quality chances (Ovechkin) gets, that's probably less of a chance that we'll win the game.”
Orpik also added that teams can’t give Ovechkin, who scored a goal and an assist in Russia’s opener against Slovenia, space around the blue line. If they do, he will make them pay.
While shutting down Ovechkin will be one of the keys to the U.S., the Americans can’t overlook some of Russia’s other players either. Aside from Ovechkin, Russia has an extremely talented roster, including captain Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit Red Wings), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Nikolai Kulemin (Toronto Maple Leafs.)
Russia held off Slovenia on Thursday, 5-2. Ovechkin scored the opening goal, while Malkin added another in the first period. The Slovenians made the game interesting in the second period with two goals from Ziga Jeglic, but Russia would put them away with two third-period goals.
Russia is hoping some of those elite players, along with the advantage of playing on home ice, help them win their first gold medal since the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. The Russians failed to earn a medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in a very forgettable performance.
Players like Ovechkin and Datsyuk have said that any result short of a gold medal will be considered failure. The drought has been particularly painful for a nation that has a great hockey tradition.
A few weeks ago, Russia’s hockey federation released an open letter on its website to its Olympic team from a group of gold-medal-winning Soviet-era veterans. The message included Vladislav Tretiak, the goalie of the Soviet team that lost to the U.S. in the famed “Miracle on Ice” game in 1980.
“The entire country will be looking at you,” Tretiak wrote. “In our time, we did everything for the victory. We glorified the USSR, our people and our sports. Don’t let Russia down, guys!”
Since the “Miracle on Ice” game, the U.S. and Russia have faced each other five times in the Olympics, including twice in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. In those games, the U.S. has a 1-3-1 record against Russia. Their most recent meeting was at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, where the Russians defeated the Americans, 5-4.
After the showdown with Russia, the U.S. will conclude group play against Slovenia on Sunday. Slovenia boast few notable players aside from Kings star Anze Kopitar.
The U.S. may feel they have more momentum entering the much-anticipated matchup with Russia. The second-period barrage of goals may have proved that the U.S. has more scoring punch than previously thought.
Jonathan Quick was rarely tested against Slovakia. Bylsma may choose to stick with the Kings goalie or mix things up with Ryan Miller, who starred for the U.S. in 2010.
With both teams winning their opening games, the winner of this contest will likely earn a first round-bye in the elimination rounds.
The game between Team USA and Russia is scheduled to begin at 7:30 a.m. ET on Saturday. The NBC Sports Network will broadcast the event live, and viewers can watch a free live stream online with NBC Live Extra.
Prediction: USA over Russia, 3-2
Bobby Ilich contributed to this report.