A World Junior Hockey Championship in January just isn't the same without a big game between Canada and Russia, and both hockey superpowers will go head-to-head once again in their semifinal game tonight.
Watch it live on TSN, TSN HD and TSN.ca at 7pm et/4pm pt.
The semifinal showdown marks the eighth time in the last decade that Canada and Russia will meet in a medal-round game at the world junior tournament. While Russia is 4-3 over that span, Canada has won three in a row over Russia - including a 4-2 victory in the gold medal game in their last encounter in 2007.
Russia's last win over Canada was in 2003 - a 3-2 victory in the gold medal game in Halifax.
After a classic New Year's Eve showdown against the United States that saw Canada come back from an early 3-0 deficit to win the game, head coach Pat Quinn and his staff will be going with Dustin Tokarski again in goal. The Spokane Chiefs' netminder was shaken up for four goals, but settled down in the second half with some game-saving stops against the Americans.
"He fought through it the other day," explained Quinn. "It wasn't pretty early on and it wasn't all his doing, but he held steady and got better in a panic situation, showed some control, so he's now been that tested guy, and we figured maybe we'd come back with the tested guy."
Up front, the offence starts with the duo of John Tavares and Cody Hodgson, who share the tournament lead in scoring with 12 points each. Tavares, projected to be the first-overall selection at the NHL Entry Draft in June, has been nothing short of spectacular, leading the world juniors in goals scored with eight and sharing the Canadian record for career goals (12) with Eric Lindros and Jeff Carter.
But as lethal as Canada's attack has been, the Russians - who easily beat the Czech Republic 5-1 in Friday's quarterfinal - boast a dangerous offence led by Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Nikita Filatov.
"The Russians come at you with tons of speed," explained Hodgson. "They send two or three guys looping at the far blue-line and they try and catch you with those long passes. We've got to be ready for that and keep their speed in check."
Coincidentally, Canada also faced the Russians in the semifinal when they were gunning for their fifth gold medal back in 1997. Led by a group of future NHLers that included Boyd Devereaux, Marc Denis, Chris Phillips and Joe Thornton, Canada won the game 3-2 and went on to win capture gold in the final against the Americans.
While that game was played in a quieter atmosphere in Switzerland, things will be much more different with more than 18,000 Canadian fans in attendance and a prime-time Saturday night audience watching across the country.
"The biggest thing is not let the crowd overhype us because it's incredible out there," said Hodgson. "You don't want to be too hyped and lose all your energy before the game. We want to be relaxed."