Fresh off a 4-1 shellacking of Team Finland, Team North America takes on a desperate Team Russia in Game 2 of Group B round robin action.
Praised for their speed, skill and youthful exuberance, question marks entering the tournament surrounded Team North America’s play without the puck and their ability to shut down some of the more potent offensive weapons in this tournament. They passed test number one with flying colours, having no issue breaking down the typically staunch team defense of Finland while nearly keeping a clean sheet defensively. Having outshot Finland 43-25 despite going out to an early lead, they proved yet again that the best form of defense is playing with the puck most of the game.
Team North America has now thrown down a marker with their impressive exhibition series and opening game to the round robin, and likely won’t be surprising anyone any longer. The difficulty level could grow by a few orders of magnitude in this tough back-to-back against Russia. Mistakes are more likely to end up in the back of the net against a team that can roll out a top six of Nikita Kucherov – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Alex Ovechkin / Vladimir Tarasenko – Evgeni Malkin – Pavel Datsyuk, with Artemi Panarin down on the third line.
Not working in Team North America’s favour is the scheduling, as they played the late game while Russia played the earlier game yesterday. Tired legs may eliminate some of Team North America’s speed advantage, but head coach Todd McLellan rolled his lines yesterday — helped by the fact that his team got out to a 3-0 lead before the game was half over, McLellan kept nearly all his forwards in the 14:00-15:00 range.
Team Russia lost a tight game to the Swedes in game one of the tournament, giving them something to build on defensively, but they were shut out for the first 59:27 prior to a late Alex Ovechkin goal, and failed to generate enough high-quality scoring chances against the Swedes.
Having lost the opener, Team Russia is now facing down yet another disappointment in a best-on-best international tournament if they fail to get the job done tonight. A second loss would nearly guarantee a group stage elimination in this tournament’s format. Team Russia should be the more desperate side, but Team North America has so far relished the role of fearless spoilers who can go toe-to-toe with any of the more experienced teams in the competition. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that a team with five first overall draft pick in the lineup isn’t going to take a backseat to anyone.
Even despite Team North America shutting out Team Europe in the pre-tournament opener, giving up two to the Czechs and just one to the Finns, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Team Russia believe their opponent’s relative lack of experience is an exploitable weakness, particularly when it comes to their play without the puck. Team North America, meanwhile, is likely smelling some blood in the water when it comes to a Russian defence corps that appears weak on paper. Team North America has scored 17 goals in four games including the pre-tournament, and that’s without Connor McDavid — sure to break out any time now with how he’s been playing – finding the net yet.
Leafs fans will have three players to monitor tonight, all of whom have taken on prominent roles on their teams. For Team North America, Auston Matthews has taken center stage on a line with Connor McDavid, putting a team-high five shots on net and notching his first point of the tournament versus Team Finland. Morgan Rielly played nearly 23 minutes on the top pairing with Aaron Ekblad last night. Nikita Zaitsev has been a mainstay on Russia’s top defence pairing with Dmitri Orlov, playing all-situations minutes and leading the team in overall time-on-ice versus Sweden (21:41).
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) September 19, 2016
Team North America Projected Lineup
Team Russia Projected Lineup