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Canada-Russia gets new chapter at World Cup

No margin for error in semifinal of 'one of the greatest rivalries ever'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- They started it, Canada and Russia. The whole idea of including NHL players in international competition to pit the best against the best began when Canada faced the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. That begat the Canada Cup. That begat the World Cup.

And now, in the semifinals of the World Cup of Hockey 2016, we have Team Canada against Team Russia at Air Canada Centre on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN2, CBC, TVA, TVA Sports).

"This," Team Russia forward Vladimir Tarasenko said, "is one of the greatest rivalries ever."

It is. But considering where these national programs are today, this game sets up differently for each team.

For Team Canada, this is a trap door.

Team Canada has won the past two Olympic gold medals and three of the past four. It is the heavy favorite in this tournament on home ice. It is the modern version of the Soviets' old Red Machine: deep, talented, bloodless, relentless.

The preliminary round offered at least a little margin for error, not that Team Canada needed it, going 3-0-0 and outscoring the opposition 14-3. The best-of-3 final would offer at least a little margin for error, too.

The semifinal offers no margin for error. It is single elimination. A bad game, a bad bounce, a great performance by Team Russia goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and Goliath goes down.

"These one-offs, that's what makes the Olympics and all these events so difficult," Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said. "These crossover games, these opportunities are not easy opportunities, and goaltending can get in the way."

Video: EUR@CAN: Crosby nets wraparound to open scoring

For Team Russia, this is an opportunity.

Russia has not won a best-on-best tournament since the 1981 Canada Cup. It has lost in the quarterfinals of the last two Olympics: 7-3 to Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Games and 3-1 to Finland at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Team Russia has progressed in this tournament, losing to Team Sweden 2-1, defeating Team North America 4-3 and defeating Team Finland 3-0.

Now it's in the semifinals. If you're going to face Team Canada, better to do it when you need to win once rather than in the final when you need to win twice in three games. Win one game, and it makes the final against Team Europe or Team Sweden.

"It's going to be a huge challenge," Bobrovsky said. "It's going to be a great hockey game. We're going to focus on that game as the most important game of our life."

Video: FIN@RUS: Tarasenko finishes nice pass from Ovechkin

Many will focus on Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby and Team Russia forward Alex Ovechkin because of their rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, respectively. There is a reason Team Canada and Team Russia played a pretournament game in Pittsburgh. Team Canada won 3-2 in overtime.

Both have made big impacts in this tournament. Crosby has two goals and two assists. Ovechkin has a goal and two assists, and had a goal waved off in the final moments of the loss to Team Sweden.

But Ovechkin was not deflecting a question when he was asked about Crosby and said: "It's Canada vs. Russia. It isn't two players."

Canada has been so dominant not just because it has had so much talent and depth. It has played as a team, with every star accepting his role, with four forward lines and three defense pairings coming in waves, each playing the same way. It has made dazzling plays; it also has smothered the opposition with its effort and structure.

Russia has struggled because it has not played as a team. Too often players have played as individuals, trying to beat opponents 1-on-1. Team Russia is not as strong on defense as Team Canada in this tournament, but it has a lot of offensive firepower: Ovechkin, Tarasenko, Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, Artemi Panarin, Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Video: SWE@RUS: Ovechkin puts Russia on scoreboard in 3rd

Does Team Canada exploit Team Russia's weakness on the blue line? Does Team Russia play team defense to protect Bobrovsky?

"We have to help him obviously," Ovechkin said. "Nobody can win game by himself. We have to block the shots. Obviously they have the skill guys up front. But for us, we play against those guys most of the time in the NHL. We know what they can do. We know how they're going to play."

Does Team Russia stay patient offensively and resist the temptation to freelance?

"Be the team," Tarasenko said. "Play for each other. Stay together. Stay strong. And it will be a hard game."

A hard game, but a fun, entertaining, hard game.

"It's going to be like Russia when we play Olympic Games," Ovechkin said. "Everybody is going to be crazy. Atmosphere's going to be unbelievable. It's going to be a great match to play and be involved and be in the stands and on TV to watch this kind of rivalry."

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