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Author: Cam Cole (Vancouver Sun)Date: 01/05/2006
Gold war: Russians talk tough ahead of game

2006 U20 World Junior Championships

Andrei Zubarev at a U18 tournament in the Czech Republic (Photo: RussianProspects Exclusive)
It's like the question the dog never asks himself while he's chasing a car: "What do I do if I catch it?"

You cheered like mad for the Russians, you leather-lunged denizens of GM Place, while they were plastering the walls with Team USA in Tuesday's semifinal of the IIHF world junior hockey championship, but now that you got your wish, you have to ask: "Did we really want this fast, skilled, tough, explosive Russian squad facing down our under-experienced, overachieving Team Canada in today's gold-medal game?"

Team Russia, by the way, thanks you for your support.

"Great fans. They helped us," defenceman Andrei Zubarev said Wednesday, grinning at a phalanx of Canadian reporters. "But we understand that in the final, we will have to play without their help."

Forgive the pessimism, but the way the Russians toyed with the Americans on Tuesday, it didn't look as though they'll need any assistance from the crowd to be more than a handful today for Canada, when these two 5-0 teams face one another in the championship game for the fourth time in the last five years.

The Russians are 3-1 all-time in gold medal finals against Canada -- three one-goal wins (two of them on Canadian ice), and last year's 6-1 loss to a star-studded Canadian team in North Dakota.

The record, they say, speaks for itself.

"We can compete with them physically, but at the technical level, we'll beat them," said Zubarev, who wears No. 11, as did Mark Messier, perhaps the most famous guarantor of victory in modern hockey annals.

"Historically, the Soviet type of hockey is more skilful," Zubarev said. "This year is no exception."

"I would agree," said goalie Anton Khudobin. "When we play as one tomorrow, we will probably dominate, if we play a Russian style of game, not just dump-and-chase."

What's this? Trash-talking from the Russians?

"This is just confidence," said Zubarev. "It is not overstated."

It might not sit well with the Canadians, but Russia made a pretty strong case Tuesday. That 5-1 win came against the same U.S. side that had held Canada to a 2-2 tie in the preliminary round, until the Americans were forced to pull their goaltender to try for the win. Equally impressive was the Russians' punishing physical play, as they battered the U.S. team into what looked very much like submission.

Canada has faced nothing in the tournament to compare to the level of the game Russia produced in the semifinal.

"Oh, I think we saw a pretty good American team, and I think that 5-1 score last night was more of a fatigue factor than anything else. I think we've been tested pretty well," said Canadian winger Ryan O'Marra, who wasn't surprised the U.S.-Russia game got nasty.

"They have a lot of big guys and a lot of speed, and I fully expected them to come out playing chippy. They showed me everything I expected to see from that team. The bigger surprise for me was how the U.S. played. They just didn't play well."

Sort of like the Russians, who were jet-lagged and disinterested -- and missing superstar Evgeni Malkin from their lineup -- when Canada clocked them 8-1 in Kamloops on Dec. 20, a week before the tournament began.

"Yes, but I don't want to say we were not ready. Canada just beat us," said forward Alexander Radulov of the Quebec Remparts.

Maybe so, but the Russians mailed it in as soon as they got down by a couple of goals that night. To say they played possum might be an insult to possums.

"You've got to take it with a grain of salt," admitted O'Marra. "Their goalie wasn't as sharp as he's been, they were missing their top player and arguably the top player outside the NHL. And I thought their team actually did take it to us pretty good in the first period -- it was close, and then all of a sudden we blew it open. And you know, it's a pre-tournament game and maybe they just weren't as into it as we were, playing in front of our home crowd. They didn't really need to put on a show."

But they are capable of it. Just ask the Americans.

Canadian netminder Justin Pogge has been relatively lightly tested so far in the tournament, compared with what he's likely to face today.

"I don't know," said the unflappable Pogge. "I mean, it's just shots. Our team defence has been limiting shots. We gave up only 25 to the Americans, so if we're playing our game, we're not going to see too many shots. That's just how it is."

Against all that Russian speed and flash and muscle, what Canada has going for it, the players say unanimously, is a sense of mission, a sense of team, that head coach Brent Sutter has instilled in a diverse, relatively inexperienced group in just a few short weeks.

"It's 100-per-cent [Sutter's] identity," O'Marra said. "His values and principles are our values and principles. We're a team. That is a direct reflection of our coach."

Canada's greatest hope lies in that identity: by playing near-perfect positional hockey, unselfishly, aggressively, with a superior team concept, they can overcome Malkin and his mates the same way they neutralized Alexander Ovechkin and Malkin -- the No. 1 and 2 picks, respectively, in the NHL's 2004 entry draft -- last January.

But, just for the record, the Russians aren't buying the "superior team concept" part.

"If that's their opinion, let them say so," said Zubarev.

It is. They have. We'll find out.

ccole@png.canwest.com

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