Game faces are on

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

LEKSAND, Sweden -- Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin were stopped cold by Canada in the past two finals, respectively, of the world junior championship.

Though there is no Russian star of that ilk in the 2007 tournament, it does not mean Canada automatically will walk over its hockey arch-rival in the gold-medal game.

In fact, beating Russia today could be a more difficult task for Canada than it has been in the past. Why? The Russians are playing more like one entity than they have in years, and on the few occasions they fall down, they have one of the country's best teenaged goalies in recent memory, Washington Capitals prospect Semen Varlamov, in net.

There is not one key player for Canada to concentrate on and that might hurt.

"They're explosive and they attack with five guys, and there is always movement on the ice," Canada coach Craig Hartsburg said. "The games I have seen, they have been very impressive with how they play as a team. There is a work ethic there and they are on the same page defensively. Last year they relied up a guy like Malkin a lot more."

Even the Russians acknowledge the team concept is one they have embraced.

"These players have come together as a team and they are playing for each other," said Russian team leader and former NHL player Sergei Nemchinov, who played against Hartsburg in the 1987 Canada Cup. "And Varlamov has been a great goalie for us. He has made some big saves."

The top-ranked draft prospect in Russia by NHL Central Scouting, forward Alexei Cherepanov, is tied for second in tournament scoring with eight points. One of his linemates, Edmonton Oilers pick Alexander Bumagin, also has eight points, and another Russian, Igor Makarov, has six.

FOUR RETURNEES

The Russians have four players back from the club that lost 5-0 to Canada a year ago in Vancouver in the deciding game. Two years ago in Grand Forks, N.D., Canada won 6-1 after Sidney Crosby delivered a crushing body-check on Ovechkin.

The Canadian players expect themselves to be much more prepared than they were for their semi-final game against the United States, which they won 2-1 in a shootout on Wednesday. Practice yesterday at Ejendals Arena was high-tempo as the Canadians prepared for the Russians' style of play.

Since the Soviet Union split up, Canada is 7-6-1 against Russia.

"Here it is, the last game, and some of the guys are never going to put on this jersey again," Ryan O'Marra of Mississauga said. "I'm going to make the most of the opportunity and I know the other guys will as well. Russia is a strong rival and they have been for the better part of three decades."


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