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Sergei Bobrovsky last line of defense for Team Russia

Goaltender faces challenge of shutting down Team Canada in World Cup semifinals

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Team Russia faces a daunting task in the semifinals of the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Team Canada, its opponent at Air Canada Centre on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN2, CBC, TVA Sports) includes nine Stanley Cup winners, four Hart Trophy winners and two Vezina Trophy winners.

Twelve of the 23 players on its roster were part of Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. In fact, Canada took home gold at the past two Olympics and has won 13 consecutive games overall in best-against-best competition dating back to the 2010 Vancouver Games, including a 7-3 trouncing of Russia in the quarterfinals.

Throw in that, as the host team, Team Canada will have the backing of a partisan crowd of more than 19,000 and Team Russia knows it will need something special to win this game and advance to the best-of-3 final.

"It's definitely a huge challenge," goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said Friday. "They've got great players and it's going to be very interesting."

Video: FIN@RUS: Bobrovsky denies Granlund on the doorstep

As Team Russia's last line of defense, it will ultimately be up to Bobrovsky to stop a loaded lineup that includes Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Logan Couture and a host of others. As defenseman Nikita Zaitsev said, "He's the most important player on our team."

Bobrovsky, 28, has shouldered the load well so far in the World Cup. The 6-foot-2, 199-pound native of Novokuznetsk, Russia, stopped 91 of the 96 shots he faced in Team Russia's three preliminary-round games. He has a .948 save percentage, a 1.68 goals-against average and one shutout.

Bobrovsky made 43 saves, including 18 in the third period, against speedy Team North America to keep Team Russia alive for a semifinal berth with a 4-3 victory on Monday. He followed that with a 21-save shutout in a 3-0 win against Team Finland on Thursday that clinched second place in Group B and a trip to the semifinals.

"If your goalie makes key saves, it's always important to help your team. You feel confidence," defenseman Andrei Markov said. "He's doing a great job and, hopefully, he's going to do the same [on Saturday]."

Bobrovsky entered training camp as the favorite to win the No. 1 job because he had played for coach Oleg Znarok at the past three World Championships and helped Russia win medals in each. He's validated the coaching staff's confidence in him with his play in the World Cup.

"All he needs to do is play as well as he did before, as well as [Thursday], too," assistant coach Harijs Vitolinsh said.

Bobrovsky is coming off a frustrating season with the Columbus Blue Jackets; he was limited to 37 games by chronic groin issues and went 15-19-1. His 2.75 GAA and .908 save percentage were his worst since the 2011-12 season with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Video: RUS@NAT: Bobrovsky keeps the puck out to seal 4-3 win

After changing his workout routine this summer and working with the Blue Jackets' new strength and conditioning consultant, Nelson Ayotte, Bobrovsky is healthy now and it's evident in his play.

"I had some tough times, obviously, but I feel great right now," he said. "I feel mentally ready and ready physically. … You believe in your body, you know that you can rely on your body and you know that everything works in the proper way."

Bobrovsky's play in the World Cup has served as a reminder of when won the Vezina Trophy in 2012-13 with the Blue Jackets. That season, he went 21-11-6, with a 2.00 GAA, a .932 save percentage and four shutouts. But Bobrovsky tries not to dwell too much on the past.

"I don't like to compare the feelings," he said. "I feel really good. I feel good physically. I feel good mentally. It's all about the process. You have some experience in the past, so you move on every day."

Team Canada saw how good Bobrovsky can be in a World Cup pretournament game against Team Russia on Sept. 14 in Pittsburgh. Bobrovsky made 45 saves to keep Team Russia in the game before Team Canada won 3-2 in overtime.

"He's a very athletic goalie," Tavares said. "He just doesn't give up on any puck. He may not seem like a big guy, but he actually covers a lot more net than you think. He battles, he's quick, so you've got to make sure that you bear down and you don't over-hesitate or overthink it."

Bobrovsky downplayed the relevance of that pretournament game to their semifinal showdown.

"I think it's going to be a way different game," he said. "The expectations, the pressure is way bigger for both of the teams and it's going to be a different game."

There is pressure on Team Russia to succeed in this tournament after it failed to win a medal in the past three Olympics, including a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Finland as the host team in the 2014 Sochi Games. Just getting to the World Cup semifinals was an accomplishment for Team Russia because it didn't get that far in the past two Olympics.

But just getting to the semifinals isn't enough for Bobrovsky.

"Obviously, it's a good result that we move on with the best four teams," he said. "The biggest challenge is in front of us and w

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