Saturday's World Cup of Hockey semifinal pitting Russia against Canada is a best of one. Win, and you move on to the final. Lose, and you head back to training camp with your NHL team. If you want to think of it as a Game 7, you can do that.
"I guess that's how we're going to play it for sure," says Team Canada defenseman Drew Doughty. "We know we've got to win this one or else we're going home, and no one wants to go home. We want to obviously win this tournament overall, and it starts tonight with a big win over Russia."
Canada is a rather huge favorite to win this game and this tournament. Russia has some skilled forwards who can make plays and score goals, given the necessary time and space. The Russians also have a hot goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, who has stopped 91 of 96 shots (.948 save pct.) in the tournament.
But the Canadians boast the deepest roster in the tourney - in goal, on the blueline, and up front. The Canadians have outscored their foes 14-3 in this tourney, and haven't lost a "best on best" game since the preliminary round of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, a span of 13 straight games. If Russia is to win tonight, it has little margin for error. And its chances for victory improve if Pavel Datsyuk is able to suit up and play.
Because of a lower body injury, the 38-year-old Datsyuk missed Russia's final round robin game against Finland on Thursday. Although he skated with his teammates at Saturday's morning skate prior to tonight's semifinal tilt, he skated somewhat gingerly at times and did not participate fully in the drills.
His availability for tonight's game won't be known until warm-ups.
"Pavel feels better," says Russian assistant coach Harijs Vitolinsh, speaking through an interpreter after Saturday's morning skate. "You will know our roster right before the game."
When Canada and Russia met in a pre-tournament exhibition in Pittsburgh on Sept. 14 in Pittsburgh, Datsyuk's 18:02 in ice time was second only to Evgeni Malkin (18:15) among all Russian forwards. Canada won that game in overtime, 3-2.
Datsyuk has two assists in the two games in which he has played.
Russia won only 41% of the face-offs in that pre-tournament game against the Canadians. Datsyuk was easily Russia's best draw man in that game, winning 14 of 22 face-offs on the night. The rest of his teammates combined to win just 31% of face-offs in that contest.
"A little bit different, of course," says Russia center Evgeny Kuznetsov, of his team with Datsyuk vs. without him. "But if he's not going to play, we have to do something without him. I'm he's going to play. If not today, maybe in the final."
Both teams want to possess and play with the puck, and if Russia finds itself chasing the disc in the immediate aftermath of seven of every 10 face-offs, it could be a long night for them.
"Face-offs, when you play against the top guys in the league, it's kind of a little bit of luck," says Kuznetsov. "All you have to do is just make sure to do your plan, because every time we have a plan against every guy. You have to see who you play against. That's one of the bigger things in the game right now, face-offs. Whoever wins the face-off is going to play with the puck."
Players and coaches from both sides are talking about the usual things teams need to do and to do well in order to win: having the puck, moving the puck, taking away time and space, playing fast, scoring first, starting strong.
"In these single elimination games, obviously getting started on time is important," says Team Canada coach Mike Babcock.
"Every team is good, so it's a lot of the same things," says Team Canada blueliner Brent Burns. "They're a great team with great individual skill. Obviously they're great offensively, so [we have to] close up their time and space."
Canada surrendered two first-period goals to Team USA in its first pre-tournament tilt, and its only loss in six games (including exhibitions) this month. Since then, the Canadians have yielded a total of two first-period goals in five games.
"You always want to start on time," says Doughty. "That first five minutes of every game is so important to set the tone. You don't want to get down a goal, even though we have done that so far in this tournament and have come back. You don't want to be put in that position. It's hard to score goals on these goalies these days, so you want to start off hot."
Players like Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Malkin and Kuznetsov will be counted upon heavily tonight for Russia. That quartet of skaters has combined to score five of Russia's eight goals in the tournament.
"Just skilled and fast," says Doughty of the Russian forwards. "They can make beautiful plays. We can't give them much space. If you give those type of players space, they're going to make you look silly and score beautiful goals. We can't give them any space, and we've got to play them physical.
"They're a good counter-attack team. If you turn pucks over at their blueline, they're going to turn it around quick and get the puck moving, and then they're going to get odd-man rushes. We've got to get pucks in behind them and then get in on the forecheck."
There is plenty of chatter about the long and storied rivalry of these two great hockey nations, but none of that matters tonight.
"We want to play against Canada, too, especially after our loss in Pittsburgh," says Tarasenko. "So we'll try to be ready for a very hard game.
"You try to be like one more game, but it's not just one more game, obviously. This will be a really hard game, and we try to prepare for it tonight.
"Just win one game. Just stay together, play for each other, play for the team."
Asked about what his team needs to do to win, Kuznetsov's reply was simple.
"Just play our game."
Okay sure, but what is it about "your" game that makes you believe you can beat Canada if you play your game?
"First of all, we have to play fast," replies Kuznetsov. "We have to play more in the offensive zone and try to make these guys work. They try to play small passes; we need to take that away and just control the front of the net."
Both sides are excited to get going.
"I'm pretty excited," says Doughty. "Can't wait to get it started. Having a day off [Thursday] and then practicing [Friday] and this morning, you kind of just want to get out there and have the game start. It's a lot better that the game is actually at 7 [p.m.], so we're not waiting around til eight o'clock. But I'm looking forward for it to start."
We're not used to seeing "big" games in September. But that's what this one is. Despite the magnitude of the contest, neither side is admitting any level of nervousness.
"We do have a plan for tonight, and all we have to do is just stay with the plan," states Kuznetsov.
"I've got a great nap coming up," grins Burns, toothlessly. "I've got no nerves."