BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -
There will be 46 men in uniform when Canada and Russia face one another in the quarter-finals at the IIHF World Hockey Championship, but Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock expects the do-or-die game to be decided by a small few.
"You can't win this tournament without all your top dogs barking," Hitchcock said after Wednesday's practice at Orange Arena. "We've got to get great performances from (Jason) Spezza, from (Rick) Nash, from (James) Neal, from (Alex) Pietrangelo, from (Dion) Phaneuf and (Brent) Burns. Those guys got to be great for us if we're going to win.
"It's the same for the Russians. It goes through the KHL Five and then it goes through (Ilya) Kovalchuk and (Alex) Ovechkin."
Another key for Canada will be goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who was named the starter for Thursday's game by Hitchcock.
The Los Angeles Kings backup played consecutive games just once this season in the NHL, but will be getting his third straight start for Canada. There will be little margin for error against such a skilled opponent.
"You can't beat the Russians without your goalie being very good," said Hitchcock. "You're just not going to get away with it. Even the games they've lost here, they've had five or six breakaways during the game, a bunch of 2-on-1s.
"They haven't lacked for scoring chances."
Until now, the Russians have struggled to find cohesiveness and urgency.
They're carrying 12 players who competed together at the Vancouver Olympics, including the all-KHL line of Sergei Zinoviev, Danis Zaripov and Alexei Morozov. Alex Ovechkin joined the team after Washington was eliminated from the NHL playoffs last week and was held pointless in losses to the Czechs and Finns.
Captain Ilya Kovalchuk is also back for his eighth world championship in nine years, but he's still looking for his first goal of the tournament.
"We didn't play our perfect game yet," said Kovalchuk. "Everybody is waiting for me to produce offence. Hopefully, it will be tomorrow."
Ovechkin skated with Maxim Afinogenov and Konstantin Gorovikov in the first two games, but there is speculation that coach Slava Bykov plans to break them up against Canada. No matter what the lineup looks like, Bykov made it clear that he's expecting more from Ovechkin, Kovalchuk and others.
"We have to step up in order to beat them," he said in French. "I am convinced every player will step up. So far, the only thing we have lacked is luck. Sometimes there was a little worry about our defensive play; offensively we have very talented snipers whose performance has not been satisfactory so far.
"But games like this one will take them to another level."
Canada's top line of Nash, Spezza and Neal has meshed well since being put together in the third period of a win over the U.S. They've produced five goals between them in seven periods while using their size to control the puck in the offensive zone and wear down the opposition.
On Wednesday, Neal sat out a second straight practice to rest a minor injury. But there didn't seem to be much concern in the Canadian camp.
"He's in for sure and he'll play a regular shift," said Hitchcock.
The quarter-final game should be a big test for the second-youngest team Canada has sent to the world championship since NHLers started participating in 1977. They've slowly built momentum while winning all six of their round robin games, but it could be quickly halted on Thursday.
There is a sense of anticipation building in Bratislava, where the Canadian team arrived Tuesday after opening the tournament 300 kilometres to the east in Kosice, Slovakia.
Photographers snapped photos as the players walked off the plane and a handful of autograph seekers have staked out the team hotel in picturesque old town. At Orange Arena, foreign journalists anxiously asked questions about the rivalry with Russia and significance of the matchup.
"It's been a two-day buildup to it," said Spezza. "To play these guys in the quarter-final means one team's going home unhappy. We have to make sure that we're ready to go."
Added Kovalchuk: "I'm sure there will be a lot of fans in the stands and on TV."
The last time Canada beat Russia in this tournament was the semifinals in 2005. Since then, the country suffered losses in the gold-medal game in 2008 and 2009, and the quarter-finals a year ago.
The biggest question mark hanging over the Russians is their defensive play and goaltender Konstantin Barulin, a 27-year-old one-time draft pick of the St. Louis Blues who plays for Mytischi Atlant in the KHL. It will be up to Canada's best players to test him early and often.
"It's the team that plays their game better that's going to win," said Phaneuf. "You have to stick to your system. We know what's at stake, it's one game and you've got to win to keep going, but as players that's exciting and these are the games you want to play in."
The only thing Kovalchuk doesn't like is the timing of the matchup.
"It's too bad we face each other in the quarter-final," he said. "One team will go home."
Watch the game live on TSN at 2 p.m. ET.