What to watch for: Russia vs. Canada

Canada's Sidney Crosby has showed why he's the best player in the world in this tournament -- on both sides of the puck -- while Alex Ovechkin has been equally dynamic in every game for Russia. USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO -- Much of the chatter heading into Saturday night's World Cup of Hockey semifinal (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and WatchESPN) is over whether Russia has the goods to upset Canada.

The question itself underlines how much the rivalry between the two countries has changed over the years. The mere suggestion that Russia beating Canada would be deemed an "upset" -- well, 25 years ago that would have been blasphemy.

Russia still produces great players, but its day as the top threat to Canada for world supremacy in the sport has long passed. Of course, a win by Alex Ovechkin and his Russian side on Canadian ice Saturday night would go a long way toward reversing that slide.

And yes, it would be an upset by any definition of the word. Team Canada went a perfect 3-0-0 in round-robin play, trailing in a game for only 89 seconds, outscoring the opposition 14-3 and running its best-on-best winning streak to 13 games going back to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

It has been one of the most dominant stretches for hockey's birth nation in modern history.

"That's all great, but that doesn't matter going into tomorrow," Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby said on Friday. "It's all about the next one. I think the trust and belief is there. It's nice to have that; it's good to have that experience with guys and the belief you can play different kind of games and overcome things. But it's only as good as what you do with it. Tomorrow is a big one, and none of the [previous] games really matter.''

Russia went 2-1-0 in round-robin play, a closely contested 2-1 loss to Sweden its only blemish, and is playing a much better team game than it did when it crashed and burned in the quarterfinals of the Sochi Olympics.

Best players

Russia: Evgeny Kuznetsov has only one point in the tournament, his electrifying goal against North America, but he's been very noticeable throughout. Put on a line between Ovechkin, his Washington Capitals teammate, and Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues for the round-robin finale against Finland, Kuznetsov looked very comfortable and creative. KHLer Ivan Telegin, property of the Winnipeg Jets, scored a beauty against Finland on Thursday and, despite being a fourth-liner on this team, has had an impact in his limited role. Ovechkin has been dynamic in every game -- no surprise there. And finally, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been outstanding in this tournament, which is no doubt encouraging for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who hope to see him return to this Vezina Trophy ways. He's stopped 91 of 96 shots in the World Cup for a sparkling .948 save percentage.

Canada: So spread out are the contributions on his ridiculously deep team that 12 skaters have at least two points through three games for Team Canada. But there's no question that Crosby is leading the way. The best player in the world has been just that in this tournament -- on both sides of the puck. His line, with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, has been both an offensive and defensive juggernaut. John Tavares has three assists and has been a force every game. Fourth-liner Matt Duchene had the big game against Team USA and has been terrific overall, given his role. Reigning Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty has been all that. Netminder Carey Price is back to being Carey Price after missing most of last season with a knee injury.

Matchup to watch

Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. Well of course, right? Team Canada has last line change, and the two most logical options for coach Mike Babcock when it comes to matching up to Russia's top line of Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Tarasenko are either Crosby's unit or the one centered by Jonathan Toews between Logan Couture and Steven Stamkos. Both options are solid. Crosby's line never seems to spend any time in its own zone in this tourney. That's one way to defend.


It's one game, which means Russia absolutely can win. And it can especially win if two things happen: Bobrovsky steals the game and Canada gets into penalty trouble, just as it did in the pre-tournament finale between both teams. Russia hasn't scored on the power play in three tournament games, but I wouldn't want to test the limits on that given the talent on those units.

"Yeah, you don't want to get into penalty trouble against them," Crosby said. "With their power play and the guys they have out there, we have to make sure we find a way to stay out of the box, try to hold onto the puck as best we can and force them to take penalties.''

Anything can happen, but logic dictates that Canada has everything going for it. It has four forward lines creating massive puck pressure in the offensive zone, and once the Canadians have the puck, they keep it for long stretches. With Price the last line of defense on top of that, the back-to-back Olympic champions should prevail. Canada wins 4-2.