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Russia aims to use skill, larger ice to its advantage

Friday, 02.14.2014 / 1:40 PM / 2014 Olympics

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Russia aims to use skill, larger ice to its advantage
The Russians plan to use their speed and skill on the larger ice surface to counter the physical style of play they expect from the United States on Saturday.

SOCHI -- Russia captain Pavel Datsyuk knows the up-and-down North American game as well as anybody here, having played it for nearly 13 years with the Detroit Red Wings. He also knows how different that style is from the skilled game the Russians want to play on the big ice at Bolshoy Ice Dome on Saturday against the United States.

Datsyuk thinks only one way can work for his team.

"If we play our hockey it'll be easy for us," Datsyuk said after practice Friday. "If we start to play not our hockey, not good for us."

The U.S. isn't planning to make it easy for Russia in the second game of Group A preliminary-round play for each team (7:30 a.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).

The Americans want to be hard, fast and physical every chance they get against the Russians.

They'll use a shut-down defense pair of Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin against the uber-skilled line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin. They also may use a bruising checking line of Dustin Brown, David Backes and Ryan Callahan against those three Russian stars.

"We do have a group of guys that can go right up against and do go right up against their type of skill and their type of players," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's how the game is going to play out [Saturday]. We don't match their skill. If we try to we won't win. But we can be hard to play against and we can be an abrasive team that's going to go square, nose to nose with some of the best skill in the world [Saturday]."

The Russians are expecting that kind of game from the Americans.

"I think it will be tough, a lot of skating," Russian forward Ilya Kovalchuk said. "On the big rink it's tough to hit, but I bet you there will be a lot of hits as well."

Datsyuk, though, had a warning for the American players who like to hit.

"It's a big arena, a long run to [hit someone]," he said. "We know how to play."

Better yet, Datsyuk doesn't think the Russians will have the same type of nerves going into the game Saturday as they did Thursday, when they jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead against Slovenia but had to score twice in the third period to pull away for a 5-2 win.

"It's a little bit less now, it's more comfortable, but we know [Thursday was] Slovenia and the U.S. is a different level team," Datsyuk said. "We need to prepare now for America, a bigger game, and be ready in every game now."

Kovalchuk called the game against the United States "a great opportunity to test ourselves."

"It's not the elimination games yet so we can try some things out," he said.

What those things may be are not yet known because Russia coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov will not announce his starting goalie and healthy scratches until the pregame skate Saturday.

It's certainly possible that Bilyaletdinov will opt to give Sergei Bobrovsky the start in net rather than Semyon Varlamov, who gave up two goals on 14 shots Thursday.

If there's one thing the Americans proved to Russia in its 7-1 win against Slovakia on Thursday, it's that they can generate offense regardless of the size of the rink. There was some curiosity about how effective the U.S. offense would be on the big ice, but the United States put that to rest by scoring six unanswered goals in the second period.

"I think it was a surprise for themselves because 7-1 is not the score they were expecting, but it said a lot about the team," Kovalchuk said. "They have a lot of firepower up front. We have to be very careful."

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2014 OLYMPICS POLL