Russia vs. Czech Republic 1 MT TSN:
The Russians have looked a bit off through their first two games, and their slightly indifferent play allowed a decent Slovak team to hang around long enough to edge them in the skills competition. All three of today's games have major implications, of course, but an outright loss will send the Russians to the 7th qualification spot. Whether that's really an issue may depend on how the seeds line after today, but at the very least it means a B2B in the quarters against a top team. I wonder if there are some NHL/KHL issues at work here, especially in terms of ice time. As Dmitry Chesnokov pointed out yesterday, the Russians aren't exactly overworking Anton Volchenkov on the back line. The other item of note for the Russians is the switch of centers for Ovechkin and Semin, with Evgeni Malkin moving up between the Capitals' duo, replacing Pavel Datsyuk. Evgeni Nabokov will start in net.
The Czechs have rolled through the first two games, dispatching the Slovaks and Latvians, and are the only team in the big six that can lose today and win their group, provided the loss is after regulation. They've ridden decent forward depth and the excellent goaltending of Tomas Vokoun in the opening matches. Vokoun has and will play every game until his team is out, so we'll see if fatigue plays any role in his play from here on. The player attracting the most attention, for a number of reasons, is Jaromir Jagr. He's looked dangerous thus far, and the talk of a return to North America next year doesn't seem like it's based on folly. Gabe Desjardins' NHLe shows him to be operating at the 30-30 mark in the KHL, and I know a few teams that could use that sort of production, even in sheltered minutes. The Czechs are pretty deep up front, so they haven't had to overplay any of their forwards to this point.
Canada vs. United States 5:40 MT CTV:
Lots of handwringing going on after Thursday's performance, but as a few saner heads have pointed out, Canada likely out-chanced the Swiss 3-1. The coaches are still hunting for a permanent member for the Crosby line, as Mike Richards filled that spot in yesterday's practice. There are some roles that have begun to fill in even after two games, however. Patrice Bergeron is going to be the 13th forward, with own-zone FO duties his major contribution. Jarome Iginla is off the Crosby line for now, working with Toews and Morrow on the "energy" line. As an aside, do you really need a line to provide "energy" in this sort of short tournament? As deep as this country's squad is, shouldn't every line be in that mode? It just seems like one of those canards, IMO.
The defence had a slightly shaky go-round against the Swiss, albeit utterly unaided by their forwards' slack-ass play without the puck. It appears that Brent Seabrook got the short straw, although I wouldn't be surprised if he and Duncan Keith got a few chances head to head vs. Patrick Kane. I still think the pairings are pretty fluid as far as the coaching staff is concerned. Martin Brodeur will get the start in net.
The U.S. has won its openers in somewhat more relaxed fashion that the Canadians, but they've been much looser in terms of trading chances. The Swiss game in particular was a series of 2 on 1s and 3 on 2s as it progressed, with Ryan Miller keeping things in order. The Americans do have a fast set up front, and their young forward group has been pressuring all over the ice, so the Canadian D will need a better effort from the forwards to get transition started. The weak spot, at least to me, for the U.S. is on the back end. They have some potentially nice players, like the Johnsons and Ryan Suter, but those guys can be pressured into errors. They do, of course, have a top-of-his-game Ryan Miller cleaning up behind them, and if the U.S. wants to trade chances, it may come down to which goalie is the sharpest.
Finland vs. Sweden 10 MT Sportsnet:
The Finns are my second choice team in this tournament, with Kipper, Hagman, and my second favourite hockey player ever on their squad. They've actually looked very sound thus far, out-shooting the opposition by an average of 40-18 in their opening two encounters. The offence is rooted in their deadly PP, with the Finns scoring six goals when up a man, batting a smooth 50%. The fact that the offence has been PP based might be a cause for concern as the tournament gets to the serious stage, since I'd guess that the PKs that the Finns face from now on might be a bit better that what Germany or Belarus could muster.
The other thing that I'd watch for is the potential for a drop-off by their main defencemen. Sami Salo and Kimmo Timonen are playing about 23-24 minutes each, and Joni Pitkanen has played about 20 minutes per game, and that's been against lesser foes. I could see a situation where they and Toni Lydman have to play significant minutes against the big boys, and suffer for it when they have to face high-end players on every single shift. Miikka Kiprusoff, with a rare night off under his belt, will go this evening. I suppose if he had Backstrom and/or Niittymaki as his back-ups in Cowtown, he might get the odd one off for the Flames as well. Sigh.
The Swedes have also seemed fairly sound through two, although we may see by the end of the games that they were in the group that only sends two teams to the QFs, so maybe they and the Finns haven't been pushed as much as the other powers, and they certainly didn't face the sort of challenge the Czechs and Russians faced in Slovakia. No matter, the Swedes are in a good spot, and a win over their Nordic neighbours will send them straight through to Wednesday. They have a deep forward group, and have spread the minutes nicely around the entire roster thus far, with no one having played less than 12 minutes a night, and Nicklas Lidstrom averaging just over 18 at the high end. They haven't had the sort of lethal special teams that the Finns are sporting, so their shot and goal totals aren't quite as impressive, but they might have the edge head to head. Henrik Lunqvist will get the start in the nets.
Today is, of course, as much about tone-setting and positioning as anything. The teams that have the most control over their fates at the moment are the Czechs, Finns, Americans and Swedes. If any of them win outright, they'll be guaranteed QF games, and since I have a feeling that at least one of these games will need extra time, a likely top-two spot. The Canadians need a bit of help to get into the top two, but if the Russians lose and end up seventh, finishing second and facing them on Wednesday might not seem like a prize. No matter the actual results, I'd expect nothing less than a display of serious quality all around. This will be the open thread for the entire day, unless things go nuts during the Canada-US game. Enjoy.