BUFFALO -- If the United States wants to win gold at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal, they'll need to be wary of facing off against Russia.
Although the United States always focuses on Canada as their main rival at the WJC, Russia has had their number in recent years. Russia has won five straight games against the U.S. dating back to 2008 and has defeated them in each of the past three tournaments. The United States will play Russia in a Group B preliminary round game at Air Canada Centre on Thursday (3:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, TSN).
"I think they're a tough team; they're hard on pucks, they're good defensively, they get pucks in deep," United States forward Colin White said. "I think when we play best against them we chip it in, get pucks on the net, play down low in their zone. I think we've gotten away from that a couple times so we just have to be a little bit harder on them."
White (Ottawa Senators) and defenseman Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) were on the 2016 team that lost 2-1 to Russia in the semifinals in Finland. In that game, the U.S. got out to a 1-0 lead in the first period, but the Russians scored twice in the second and goalie Ilya Samsonov (Washington Capitals) prevented the U.S. from getting back in the game.
"At some point you've got to give them credit because they're obviously a great country at playing hockey; they've had success for a reason," McAvoy said. "I'd say goaltending is one of those reasons. Every time we play them it's never a high scoring game because of their goaltending. I think Samsonov has kind of had our number; he's obviously a first-round draft pick as a goalie which speaks volumes to how good he is."
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Throughout World Junior history, the United States has always struggled against Russia. In 17 meetings, the U.S. has won five times. Making matters worse for the Americans is that when they've faced Russia in the medal round, they've never defeated them (0-7).
"To be honest, before you said it I had no idea and I don't think that [the players] do," United States assistant coach Grant Potulny said. "The thing that's unique about these teams, the carryover is so few. You might have a couple guys that played the year before, but a lot of guys it's a fresh tournament and it's a fresh start against other fresh players. It's not like you're coming from your regular team where you built up a little rivalry or animosity or history with these players on these teams. The countries for sure have the history, but the players don't. I think a lot of times they're just playing hockey."
Even though the United States lack of success against Russia isn't exactly well known, their matchups are made intriguing because of the history between the two countries and how their styles of play differ.
"They can and they do want to play a break-you-down 1-on-1 game," Potulny said. "You don't see that in North America because you hear all the time about puck support, 2-on-1-ing people. Their skill level is so high that they can break you down 1-on-1 and that's a big thing that if you let your defenders be on an island against someone with talent, then they have the opportunity to break you down 1-on-1. But if you can swarm and outnumber defensively I think you can do a good job trying to support the puck defensively and make it a little more difficult."
The United States rivalry with Russia makes for great theater, but is it a rivalry on par with Canada at the World Junior Championship? The players seem to think so.
"I think for a lot of guys it would feel like that," McAvoy said. "It's been a while since we've beaten those guys and it's been a while since a lot of us have beaten them. If we kind of take the approach that it's a personal game, I think we'll be pretty successful."