Even though it will come a game earlier than the gold medal game, the semi-final matchup between Canada and Russia is without question the most highly anticipated game of the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship. A rematch of last year’s final and the greatest rivalry in international hockey, the two countries are set to face-off again tonight at the Saddledome in Calgary.
A year ago in Buffalo, the teams played in one of the more remarkable games in tournament history with the Russians coming back from a 3-0 third period deficit, scoring five unanswered goals to stun the Canadians en route to their first World Junior gold in eight years.
This year Cananda and Russia came into the tournament as the two teams expected to meet in the final again, but when the Russians lost their final round robin game to Sweden, it meant that the showdown would have to happen in the semi’s rather than them playing for gold.
While just hearing the words Canada vs Russia is enough to boil the pot, a piece of theatre like the one we will see tonight wouldn’t be anything without it’s top performers. Here are five players that anyone watching tonight should keep a close eye on, because all five could very well play a key role in the outcome:
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Russia: If Kuznetsov is able to turn in the same type of performance that he did against Latvia then Canada will be in a whole lot of trouble. In Russia’s 14-0 drubbing of Latvia, Kuznetsov racked up nine points, but surprisingly failed to record a point in the other four games.
Despite being frusturated by the Czech’s in the quarter-finals last night, Kuznetsov did show a good amount of jump and certainly has the experience of performing in a big game against Canada. In the gold medal game last year, he was the best Russian forward as he assisted on three of the five goals in the comeback.
Mark Stone, Canada: Expect head coach Don Hay to use the line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Mark Strone, and Ryan Strome as much as possible early in the game, because as long as Stone is on the ice, Canada’s chances of scoring first are greatly increased. The big Canadian forward has scored the opening goal in three of Canada’s four games and is tied for the tournament lead in goals with seven.
Stone, and the aforementioned Huberdeau and Strome have been the best line in the tournament with most of the damage coming off the stick of Stone. Look for him to try and make life difficult in front of the Russian goal with his imposing size and strength; something no team to date has had an answer for.
Nail Yakupov, Russia: Gamebreakers. It is something the Russians seem to always have and this year is no different. Expected to be the first pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Yakupov above anyone else in tonight’s game, is the one player who can alter the outcome in the blink of an eye. His electrifying speed and puck-skills make him the most dangerous player in the tournament on the rush and in transition.
The Canadians have been the best defensive team in the tournament but if they happen to make a glaring turnover when #10 is lurking then it could end up being very costly.
Scott Wedgewood, Canada: As was largely expected, Wedgewood will indeed be between the pipes for Canada against the Russians. Wedgewood has looked very solid and earned the nod over Mark Visentin in the two games he played in wins over the Czech Republic and the United States.
Having stopped 56 of 58 shots, Wedgewood has looked the steadier of the two goalies and gives Canada it’s best chance at victory. He has also shown a very calm demeanor on and off the ice, and that poise is something he will have to draw upon in a pressure packed game like this one.
Andrei Vasilevski, Russia: One of the more surprising performances of the tournament has been turned in by Russian goaltender Andrei Vasilevsky. The 17-year-old was particularly outstanding in last night’s overtime win over the Czech’s making 38 saves in what was very much a goaltending duel with Czech goalie Petr Mrazek.
Vasilevsky has a competition best 0.97 save percentage having allowed just five goals on 169 shots, and with Canada having been the better of the two teams coming in, he is likely to face more rubber than his counterpart.
If he can deliver another stellar performance in what will be an incredibly hostile environment, Vasilevsky will not only be a national hero, but he will also see his NHL draft stock rise considerably; if it hasn’t already.