Don't count out Russians
By AL STRACHAN, TORONTO SUN
Originally tonight's Canada-Russia game was expected to be nothing more than a World Cup first-round formality. The Russians were believed to be in disarray, devoid of stars, lacking goaltending and likely to be content with going through the motions.
But on Wednesday night, the Russians manhandled the U.S. and, suddenly, the universally held opinion has changed.
Now, it's not inconceivable that tonight's game will feature the two best teams in the tournament.
There never was any doubt the Russians could be great.
But would they?
They are notorious for shutting it down. The cliques within the team, the battles with bureaucracy, the egos of some players -- all were factors in a series of poor showings by Russia in international competition.
As first, this version appeared to be no different. A host of stars discovered convenient injuries to keep them away. Others said that summer is a time for golf, not hockey.
The two best Russian goalies -- Nikolai Khabibulin and Evgeny Nabokov -- pulled out, the former because of disinterest and the latter because of surgery.
So when the leftovers came to North America and staggered through the exhibition round (including a crushingly dull 0-0 tie against Slovakia) the Russians were written off as a factor in the tournament.
Time for a rewrite.
Travel fatigue, the players say, had a lot to do with the lethargic performances in the exhibition games. The goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov, 24, is so highly regarded that the Anaheim Mighty Ducks dumped Martin Gerber to accommodate him.
And, most importantly, the players who are here want to be here.
"The atmosphere is quite different than it used to be," defenceman Oleg Tverdovsky said after yesterday's skate. "The big difference is that nobody is crying. Nobody is being selfish.
"Everybody is trying to work hard. It doesn't matter where they play -- power play or penalty killing, 10 minutes or 30 minutes. You just play as a team.
"We have a lot of young guys who don't depend only on their skills. They work hard. I think this team has a lot of talent, but these guys are working their tails off."
Tverdovsky is only 28, but because he was so good as a youngster (second overall in the 1994 draft) he has lots of international experience and has been a part of many of the disappointing Russian teams. He shook his head and said he still can't believe that the array of talent the Russians sent to Salt Lake City did so poorly.
But he's encouraged by what he sees now. He knows the talent is there and he feels that even though Bryzgalov is inexperienced at this level, the Russians are doing everything they can to make his life easy.
"It's team defence," he said. "If we play a solid team defence and help our goalie, then he'll stop the first shot and after that it's everybody doing his job.
"Our forwards did a hell of a job against the U.S., forechecking and backchecking. Every time I looked, there were four guys back. There were no odd-man rushes."
Last year, Tverdovsky played in Omsk in the Russian League. The Maple Leafs were trying to land him in August, but Omsk came through with a more lucrative offer.
Big money is pouring into Russian hockey these days and Tverdovsky says the game is played at such a high tempo on the big ice surface that some National Hockey League players wouldn't be able to make the grade.
Now, the national team has brought that high-tempo game to the World Cup and tonight, the Canadians probably will find out that if they are to maintain their unbeaten record, they will have to pull out all the stops.
They didn't think that a few days ago.