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Canada and Russia set to Renew Rivalry

The two longtime international rivals square off on Saturday night in World Cup of Hockey semifinal match

by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / Monumental Sports Network

While their Washington Capitals teammates open up 2016 training camp at Kettler Capitals Iceplex back in Arlington on Friday, half a dozen Caps players remain with their respective teams in Toronto at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Caps coach Barry Trotz - an assistant coach for the Team Canada squad - also remains here in Toronto while associate coach Todd Reirden and the rest of the Washington coaching staff puts the team through its paces back in Arlington.

The preliminary round of the World Cup is over; the field has been whittled from eight teams to four. Team Russia (with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov and Alex Ovechkin) faces Team Canada (with Braden Holtby) on Saturday night in the first of the two semifinal games, and Team Sweden (with Nicklas Backstrom) faces Team Europe (and Philipp Grubauer) on Sunday afternoon.

Those four teams took to the ice at Air Canada Centre on Friday for practice sessions in preparation for the semifinals. Russia went first, conducting an optional session at 10 a.m. They were followed onto the ice by Canada (at 11:15 a.m.), Sweden (at 12:45 p.m.) and Europe (at 2 p.m.).

After dropping last night's round-robin finale to the Czech Republic, the members of Team USA have headed back to their respective NHL clubs. A trio of Capitals skaters - John Carlson, Matt Niskanen and T.J. Oshie - played for Team USA and will rejoin their Washington teammates at some point in the next few days. 

The remainder of the Caps whose World Cup teams are still alive will head back shortly after they're eliminated, or shortly after the tournament concludes, whichever the case may be. They'll take a day or two to rest up before they rejoin their Caps teammates on the ice for Washington's training camp. 

Here in Toronto, no one is thinking of NHL camp. The focus is entirely on the weekend's semifinal games. The Saturday night prime time affair featuring Canada and Russia is the main event, given the hockey rivalry that has developed between the two, beginning with the storied 1972 Summit Series and moving onto the Canada Cup series in the 1980s. 

"It started from the past," says veteran Team Russia blueliner Andrei Markov. "Every time we face each other, it's emotional and exciting and something special for both teams."

"It's a rivalry that's been around for a long time," says Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby. "I think it means an intense and emotional game and two proud nations when it comes to hockey."

Canada is and has been a heavy favorite to win the tournament. It rolled up a plus-11 goal differential in the three round robin games, and permitted just three goals in three games. 

Russia overcame an opening game loss to Sweden, defeating North America and Finland to land a berth in the semifinals. Stellar goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky helped Russia advance to the final four, and Bobrovsky is aware he'll need to be at the top of his game to give his team a chance to reach the final next week.

"It's definitely a huge challenge," admits Bobrovsky. "They've got great players. It's going to be very interesting."

After being plagued by injuries throughout last season, Bobrovsky is back at full health, and he has shown it in this tournament. He has a 1.68 GAA and a .948 save pct. in his three tournament starts. Canadian counterpart Carey Price has been even better, with a 1.00 GAA and a .968 save pct. for the tourney to date. 

"I have had some tough times, obviously," he says. "But I feel great right now. I feel ready, mentally ready and physically. I look forward to [Saturday] night."

The first World Cup tourney in a dozen years has had some ups and downs, but the quality of the hockey played has been mostly good, a far cry from what we are used to seeing in September. Expect Canada and Russia to ratchet it up another notch or two on Saturday, and for Sweden and Europe to follow suit on Sunday. 

"There is a lot more on the line, for sure," says Canada center John Tavares. "The intensity will be high. It will be a great atmosphere here [Saturday] night. Russia is obviously improving as the tournament goes on. You see how much stronger they play, so we're going to have to be at our best. These two teams always seem to bring out the best in each other, so it should be a lot of fun."

With the game in Toronto, the crowd will be loud and very pro-Canada. 

"I think the atmosphere is going to be fun," says Bobrovsky. "The crowd is going to be loud and they're going to push [Team Canada]. It's interesting on both sides. It's interesting to play when that crowd is for you and it's also very good when the whole crowd is against you. It's going to be an interesting game."

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