VIENNA -- Team Canada got a scare from Slovakia in their world championship quarter-final matchup on Thursday.
It also got some valuable experience.
"I think playing the Slovaks was a good prelude to playing the Russians," Team Canada assistant coach Craig MacTavish said yesterday, referring to his team's nail-biting 5-4 victory.
"They're both teams that have an abundance of skill on the front end, and they're very good one-on-one players.
"We're going to play a similar game, with a few corrections, because they'll try to execute a similar game plan to the Slovaks."
If Team Canada can win this one against Russia today, it will move on to the title game tomorrow with a crack at a third consecutive world championship.
The Czech Republic faces Sweden in the other semi-final today.
Like everyone else in the hockey world, the Russians look up to Canada and will need no extra motivation to produce their best game.
Their forwards will be flying, and their defence will be staunch. They will force the Canadians to do what they wanted to do against Slovakia -- and didn't always do well.
"You have to make sure you don't get beat one on one," MacTavish said. "They're going to expose you and take the ice away."
This does not mean that Canada is necessarily in serious trouble. It just means that there must be discipline. The danger areas have to be defined and covered. After that, the problems should be minimized.
When the Canadians first started to provide serious competition for what was then the Soviet Union -- in the Canada Cups of 1984, 1987 and 1991 -- they designated the areas behind the nets as territory that must be conquered and controlled.
Now that hockey has evolved, the target area is larger.
"The tops of the circles on down -- in both ends -- is an area that we want to be dominant," MacTavish said. "The area is bigger, but we also want to be dominant on the boards and play Canadian hockey."
Being dominant on the boards is not as easy as it seems. Sure, the Canadians could rush wildly at the Russians and every so often, plaster one of them. But under these circumstances, the timing of those attempts is crucial.
"It's a different mindset for our players," MacTavish said. "You usually have to give them the outside and be tighter in the middle of the ice. In the NHL, there's such a focus on protecting the lines and not giving them any room in the offensive zone -- standing up at the red line and the blue line. But here, you really have to be tighter in the middle.
"A lot of times, to be tighter in the middle, you have to give them the entry."
That's not a new strategy. The Canadians feel that the Russians can't do much damage along the boards, so if they want to play out there, let them. But if the Russians move inside, they sometimes will gamble and a turnover at that stage could reap significant benefits for Canada.
"They'll try to beat you in areas of the rink that are pretty dangerous areas, so if you can stop them there, your transition game will be good," MacTavish said.
For the most part, this is the strategy the Canadians wanted to use against Slovakia. The breakdowns usually came on long breakaway passes, but unless the Soviets have been keeping a secret weapon in reserve, that is not a tactic that they use as often as the Slovaks.
They prefer the five-man advance with a lot of passing and a premium on puck possession. It can be impressive when it works, but if the defenders maintain their discipline and resist the temptation to run around, it can also be countered.
The Russians are a good squad and cannot be taken lightly. But top to bottom, the Canadians are a better team and, if they apply the lessons they learned against Slovakia, will advance to the final.