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Slovaks face another tough task against Russia

by John Dellapina
RUSSIA (1-0-0-0) vs. SLOVAKIA (0-1-0-0)

NOTE: records are presented as three-point wins (regulation time), two-point wins (OT or shootout), one-point losses (OT or shootout), zero-point losses (regulation time).
What to watch -- Russia merely broke a sweat against Latvia in its Group B opener Tuesday. Slovakia on Wednesday night broke out in the traditional cold sweat that is standard whenever it faces its arch-rival, the Czech Republic.

Actually, the Slovaks probably were fully lathered long before ever beginning Olympic play, what with the scheduler and the injury gods conspiring against them. The only one of the traditional power countries to have to play three games in four nights in group play, Slovakia also drew into the most difficult of the three groups by virtue of their low IIHF seeding, owing to poor results over the last four years.

Under normal circumstances, Slovakia could be expected to give Russia all it could handle. But playing a second straight night against a formidable opponent, Slovakia will be accomplishing a great deal if it merely keeps this a game going into the third period.

Russia's speed and skill should be on display from the drop of the puck. A tired Slovak team will be scrambling to keep up with Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Semin -- particularly because those NHL stars ought to be significantly sharper in their second Olympic game than their first.

Team Reports:
Russia -- Given the delicate task the Russians face in developing instant chemistry among so many highly-skilled, high-profile forwards, the Olympic schedule couldn't have been set up better if GM Vladislav Tretiak had planned it himself.

After a just-competitive-enough opener against Latvia, a former Soviet Socialist Republic that brings passion if not comparable ability, the Russians gradually climb the resistance scale. Slovakia will force the Russian forwards to at least consider back-checking and present the first real test for the club's supposed weakness -- its defense corps.

Russia will look to fine-tune its top two lines after a productive but spotty performance against Latvia. Russia also will turn their net over to Ilya Bryzgalov after Evgeni Nabokov's OK outing in the opener.

Nabokov was sharp through two periods, in which Latvia's chances were few, but there were a couple of good ones. He lost focus in the third, opening the door for Bryzgalov, who is having a brilliant season with Phoenix, to grab Russia's No. 1 job going into the medal round.

Slovakia -- Playing Russia under the best of circumstances is a daunting task. These are anything but the best of circumstances for the Slovakia.

Their top two forwards are banged up. Marian Hossa of the Detroit Red Wings, who suffered a concussion against Columbus last Saturday, and Marian Gaborik, the goal-scoring machine from the New York Rangers, both managed to play against the Czech Republic on Tuesday night. Gaborik scored his country's lone goal in a 3-1 loss, just one week after suffering a deep gash to his thigh during a Rangers practice.

Slovakia at least can make it hurt for the Russians to score their goals. Their big blue-line corps includes 6-foot-9, 255-pound Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins and 6-4, 236-pound Milan Jurcina of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Total NHL players on the rosters: 27 -- 14 Russians and 13 Slovaks.

Puck Drop -- "I hope we're not going to face any surprises. That's why I'm a little cautious to say how we're going to do within our group. But I think the goal of any team is to win your group and play good hockey. So let's stick with the good hockey and solid play on the ice." -- Team Russia center Sergei Fedorov.

Prediction -- The proud Slovaks will keep this close as long as they can. But their age (their forwards are predominantly in their mid-30s) and the demands of playing on consecutive nights against top-tier opponents figures to wear on them. Russia blows it open late in a 7-3 victory.

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