February 12, 2014 3:30 pm
Updated: February 13, 2014 9:40 pm

Canada vs. Russia: Should Team Canada fear the Big Red Machine?


Above: Canada and Russia won their respective first games at the Bolshoi Ice Dome on Thursday. Some fans are hoping that could lead to a face-off between the longtime rivals. Eric Sorensen reports. (Feb. 13)

Paul Henderson’s Summit-winning goal in 1972 is one  of the most iconic moments in Canadian sports history.

A rivalry between Canada and the Soviet Union was born during that September, the first time a team from what’s now Russia faced off against a North American team of professional players.

“It all started in 1972,” Team Canada coach Claude Julien said during a press conference in Sochi on Monday. “Everyone in Canada was surprised to see how good those Russian players were. They earned our respect back then and it has continued to be that way.”

WATCH: Members of Team Canada discuss the rivalry with Russia and possible showdown in Sochi

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Over the last 42 years that rivalry’s failed to reach a pinnacle as great as the Summit Series. This is largely due to the integration of Russians into the NHL and international competitions not featuring NHL players (the Olympics didn’t allow NHLers until 1998).

In 1972 it was Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke and Ken Dryden against Valeri Kharlamov, Boris Mikhailov and Vladislav Tretiak.

Now it’s Sid the Kid versus Alexander the Great.

Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin are in Sochi leading the two hockey teams under the most pressure in the 2014 Winter Olympics. They could also be leading them to a much-anticipated faceoff.

In depth: Sochi Olympics

In the four Winter Olympics hockey tournaments since NHL players were allowed to go, Canada has won two medals, both gold (2002, 2010). Russia has won one silver (1998) and one bronze (2002).

To many Canadians, especially young ones, Russia may not come to mind when they’re asked to name the country’s number-one hockey rival. Because of the World Juniors and the Vancouver Olympics, that title’s likely taken by the U.S.A.

And in the past four Olympics, Canada and Russia have only played each other twice.

One was in Turin 2006, where Russia defeated Canada 2-0 in the quarterfinals, leading to Canada’s disappointing seventh-place finish. The other was four years ago in Vancouver, when Canada dominated Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinals, landing Russia in sixth.

WATCH: Team Canada address numerous questions including their rivalry with Russia in their team news conference

Now the stage is set for one of the most memorable Canada-Russia matchups ever – here’s why:

Turin heartbreak

In 2006, Canada sent a team that closely replicated the one that won gold in Salt Lake City 2002. They were big, strong and physical. Needless to say Canada learned a lesson about playing on larger international ice that year.

They couldn’t keep up. Russia, one of the faster teams, sent Canada packing way earlier than expected and broke the country’s collective heart.

Now, the Canadian team is stacked with speed. They know how big a factor it will be on the bigger ice surface. They’ll be able to keep up this time around.

In 2010, when Canada had their way with their longtime rivals, the Russians were a strong team save for one thing – goaltending. Their three goalies were Evgeni Nabokov, a little long in the tooth at 35 years old, the oh-so-inconsistent Ilya Bryzgalov and a 22-year-old Semyon Varlamov, who had fewer than 30 games of NHL experience.

This year, Russia boasts 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky as well as Varlamov, now a seasoned five-year veteran of the NHL. Out of every country in the tournament , Russian goaltending is arguably the most improved area from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

‘Russia has always been the big rival’

Russia knows Canada is a hockey power to reckon with and have set their eyes on beating Canada in the gold-medal game in Sochi. During the Team Canada press conference, one Russian reporter directly asked Patrick Marleau if he was ready for the gold medal game against Russia. Patrice Bergeron was asked if he was ready to go up against Alexander Ovechkin.

“It would be great to play in the finals against any team,” Marleau told reporters, adding later, “Russia has always been the big rival.”

But can Russia get to the gold-medal game? And if they do meet Canada there, can they actually beat them? Probably not.

Russia boasts the most explosive line in the tournament with the unit of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. Their second line also features two of the best players in the world, Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.

“They’re a great team, a team with a lot of scorers … we all know that,” Bergeron said. “If we get to the point where we play Russia, it will be a big challenge.”

The Russians have two big problems – their depth and their defence. One of the keys to success in tournament hockey is having an effective checking line that can contain the opponent’s best players. Other than Datsyuk and Toronto Maple Leaf Nikolai Kulemin, Russia has mostly offensive-minded forwards. Going up against a team like Canada that has four elite lines, Russia will need to play a strong defensive game.

Their defence core could prove a liability for the Russians, as well. Other than Montreal Canadiens Andrei Markov and Alexi Emelin, Russia doesn’t have many defencemen that are solid in their own zone – especially going up against Crosby and crew.

Home team pressure – and advantage

That said, Russia could have a very important asset in Sochi – home ice advantage. Canada boasts the most talented team in the tournament. But every one of their players is from the NHL, where they play on North American-sized ice.

Russia has nine players on their roster who regularly play on international ice, which is 15 feet wider than NHL ice. That’s an extra 3,000 square feet of ice to cover. It may not sound like a big deal, but consider this: Canada has never reached the podium in hockey on international ice.

“It’s on their home turf and it means more to them,” Julien said. He was there four years ago in Vancouver and knows all about the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd.

The Canadian team looks like the lineup from an NHL All-Star Game. But Canada will also have a target on their backs as the reigning Olympic champions.

WATCH: Team Russia discusses the pressure of playing at home and their rivalry with Canada

No team will be gunning to take the Canadians out as much as the Russians.

“In Vancouver, losing to the Canadians was a big blow to us,” Ovechkin said during the Russian team’s press conference. “Now, we are in the same position Canada was in four years ago. We can handle the pressure,” he added, smirking.

Both teams will need to be on top of their game and play to their strengths. Canada will have to take advantage of Russia’s weak defence and get pucks on net in order to solve the solid Russian goalies, while Canada’s goalies will have to be on their game against Russia’s explosive offence.

Russia will need to play well in their own zone or Canada will dominate the game as they did in Vancouver. Using their speed could give them an advantage on the big ice.

“We have a lot to answer for,” said Russian hockey legend and head of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia Vladislav Tretiak. “We will fight in every match.”

Canada and Russia may not go head to head in Sochi, but if they do it promises to be a memorable matchup.

Both teams’ tournaments get under way on Thursday, with Russia taking on Slovakia at 7:30 a.m. ET / 4:30 a.m. PT and Canada going up against Norway at 12 p.m. ET / 9 a.m. PT.

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