Crosby, Ovechkin renew Canada-Russia rivalry
One of the most hotly anticipated hockey games — and individual matchups — in recent memory will take place Wednesday night in Vancouver as Canada meets Russia in the Olympic quarter-finals.
Besides the obvious high stakes — the winner moves on to the semifinals while the loser is eliminated from medal contention — the game pits the game's two biggest stars, Canada's Sidney Crosby and Russia's Alex Ovechkin, against each other.
"It's going to be intense," Crosby said. "It's something that we thought sooner or later would happen. It's not a huge surprise."
Crosby and Ovechkin have assumed dual custody of the Hart Trophy, given annually to the NHL's most valuable player, with Ovechkin winning it the last two years and Crosby taking the one before that. This season, Ovechkin is the frontrunner to win his second Art Ross Trophy as the league's scoring champion, leading all players with 89 points in just 54 games. Crosby ranks third, with 78 points in 61 games.
Canada vs. Russia: Who do you think will win?
Ovechkin and Crosby are neck-and-neck in the race for the Maurice Richard Trophy, with 42 goals apiece. That's already a career high for Crosby, who's also tied for the Olympic scoring lead, with six points. Ovechkin has four.
The Canadian also got a leg up in the less-than-friendly rivalry in last year's NHL playoffs, leading his Pittsburgh Penguins past Ovechkin's Washington Capitals en route to becoming the youngest captain in history to hoist the Stanley Cup. Ovechkin has never led his pro team past the second round.
Cold War roots
Professional accomplishments and individual accolades will be cast aside Wednesday, with national pride taking over. The latest chapter will be written in a classic hockey rivalry born in the Cold War clashes between Canada and the Soviet Union — most notably, the legendary 1972 Summit Series that ended with Paul Henderson's winning goal late in the final game in Moscow.
The Soviets would later defeat their rivals in the final of the 1981 Canada Cup, before Canada won a rematch in 1987 on another iconic goal in the deciding game — the famous Gretzky-to-Lemieux play in Hamilton, Ont.
More recently, Russia has defeated Canada in the gold-medal match of the last two world championships.
Current Canadian Olympians Ryan Getzlaf, Dany Heatley, Duncan Keith, Rick Nash, Eric Staal and Jonathan Toews were on the losing side in 2008 when Canada blew a two-goal lead to drop a 5-4 overtime decision to Ovechkin and Russia in Quebec City.
Last spring, Heatley, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber played for Canada at the world championship. But an early 1-0 lead for the Canadians disappeared into a 2-1 defeat.
"For sure, that was a heartbreaking loss in the world championship last year," Doughty said. "Obviously, they have a lot of firepower right throughout their team. We need to play that Canadian way. I think we're the better team."
Luongo vs. Nabokov
Crosby hopes to avenge his country's bitter defeat at the hands of Russia in the 2006 Olympic quarter-finals in Turin, Italy. The Russians won that game 2-0, and Team Canada boss Wayne Gretzky was left wishing he'd selected Crosby, who was left off the team in the midst of a 102-point rookie season.
Hockey fans were licking their chops at the potential for a rematch in the 2010 gold-medal game, but the Canada-Russia showdown will again happen earlier than expected after the home team faltered in the preliminary round. After crushing lightweight Norway, the Canadians needed a shootout to dispatch underdog Switzerland and then lost to the United States, forcing them into the indignity of having to win a qualifier against Germany on Tuesday just to reach the quarter-finals.
The Russians handled their early games more gracefully, despite playing in what looked like a tougher group. They hammered Latvia, lost a surprise shootout decision to Slovakia, then beat a tough Czech team in the finale, with Ovechkin's open-ice pasting of opposing star Jaromir Jagr propelling Russia to a 4-2 win.
Besides Ovechkin-Crosby, the matchup that might decide Wednesday's game is the Roberto Luongo vs. Evgeni Nabokov duel in goal.
Inserted in place of a shaky Martin Brodeur, Luongo made 21 saves in Tuesday's 8-2 qualification-round win over Germany.
"I think his bank account shows he's a pretty good goalie," said Canada head coach Mike Babcock.
Luongo added, "I've played in a lot of big international games, and hopefully it's not the biggest one I play in this week."
With files from Tim Wharnsby