The best rivalries in sports are often the ones where two elite, sometimes evenly matched teams face each other on a regular basis with a lot at stake.
As that applies to hockey, the playoff and regular season clashes between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are a recent example from the National Hockey League. And on the international stage, it’s also true of the United States and Russia.
While the two hockey nations have had a rich history of contentious meetings going back to the Cold War, highlighted of course by the 1980 Winter Olympics, their recent matchups have often had medals on the line at multiple levels of international competition.
Another chapter will be written when the rivals face off in Cologne, Germany, on Tuesday in their final Group A round-robin contest of the 2017 IIHF Men's World Championship.
“There’s so much pride when they’re playing and the fan base that supports them,” USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations Jim Johannson said in regard to Russia. “I think our players truly enjoy the games against them, but they also know what a great challenge it’s going to be.”
That will be the case again this time as Russia jumped out to a strong start, winning its first six games, one in overtime, and are at the top of the Group A standings with 17 points. Meanwhile, after starting 5-1, the Americans second with 15 points.
“I guess we consider them a country here that’s a marker, if you will, especially at the world championships,” Johannson said. “There’s such a rich history of both the Soviet and the Russian team at the world championships, they’re a marker. At the national, senior level, Russia has been a dominant team at this event. You look at the history, they have a lot of medals, so it’s something that we’re striving for consistency here in medal performance, but ultimately getting ourselves also in gold medal contention.”
In last year’s tournament, Russia beat Team USA 7-2 in the bronze medal game.
In 2015, the U.S. and Russia faced off twice. Team USA won the round-robin matchup, 4-2. But in the semifinal, the Russians emerged with a 4-0 victory, en route to a silver medal. The Americans went on to defeat the Czech Republic 3-0 to claim bronze, their second bronze in three years, but just the nation’s fourth medal of any kind dating back to 1962.
The recent meetings at the World Juniors have been just as monumental, with the Russians eliminating the U.S. in three straight tournaments before the Americans turned the tables this year. After claiming a 4-3 shootout win over Russia in the semifinals this past January, Team USA went on to take the gold medal.
That result served to avenge a 2-1 semifinal loss in 2016 as the Russians ended up with silver and the U.S., following an 8-3 victory over Sweden, took bronze. In both 2014 and 2015, the Russians knocked out Team USA in the quarterfinals, winning 3-2 in 2015 on their way to a silver medal and 5-3 in 2014 en route to bronze.
There was also the epic encounter at the 2014 Winter Olympics on Russian home ice, when the U.S. outlasted the home team in a 8-round shootout to claim a 3-2 round-robin victory, in which Capitals star T.J. Oshie scored four times in the shootout.
The game on Tuesday will be important as well, determining Group A’s top seed, thereby granting the possibility of playing a more favorable opponent in Thursday’s quarterfinal round for the winner.
“When you look back to our games with Russia, obviously spearheaded by 1980, you look at the Sochi Olympics and the T.J. Oshie shootout, and then you look at our recent World Junior games where they had knocked us out three years in a row,” recalled Johannson of the recent meetings. “So the hockey has kind of led to the rivalry, but it’s led to it the right way, because of some great games in the past and results have gone both ways.”
One of the key reasons that Russia is such a respected and formidable rival is because of how highly the best players there value the experience of playing for the national team, particularly at the World Championship, and that remains a mindset that Johannson is somewhat envious of.
“Their players take great pride in playing for their national team,” Johannson said. “One of the differences with Russia, and Europe in general, the players get labeled by the number of national team games that they played. And that hasn’t really carried over to the U.S. or Canada. It’s carried over in one sense, that people talk about whether a guy won gold at World Juniors or something like that, but they don’t talk about the number of national team games that he played. In Russia, that’s a marker of big pride for a player, it’s a measurement of the player.”
The next big test comes up tomorrow.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc
|May 2||Italy (exh.)||W, 5-2||Agora Arena||Milan, Italy|
|May 5||Germany||L, 1-2||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 7||Denmark||W, 7-2||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 8||Sweden||W, 4-3||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 10||Italy||W, 3-0||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 13||Latvia||W, 5-3||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 14||Slovakia||W, 6-1||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 16||Russia||W, 5-3||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|
|May 18||Finland (quarterfinal)||L, 0-2||LANXESS Arena||Cologne, Germany|