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Team Canada’s ‘here to win’ – but Russia’s a real threat at World Cup

Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock speaks to his players during practice at the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto on Sept. 23, 2016.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ryan Getzlaf doesn't remember a single thing from Canada's last matchup with Russia in a tournament featuring the best hockey players in the world.

"I couldn't even tell you what the score was or when we played them or what happened," Getzlaf said.

Head coach Mike Babcock remembers the nerves permeating his bench that day. If unbeatable on the world stage over the past six years, Team Canada was anxious at that point of the 2010 Olympic Games in a quarter-final matchup with the Russians. The group was four years removed from a seventh-place disaster at the 2006 Games, trying to reclaim gold on home soil in Vancouver.

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Any tension quickly evaporated. Canada pumped six goals past Evgeni Nabakov in the first 24 minutes and won 7-3. Getzlaf, for what it's worth, had three points in just over 10 minutes.

Canada is now a powerhouse as it prepares to host Russia in Saturday's semi-final of the World Cup of Hockey, winners of 13 straight best-on-best games dating back to 2010. The Canadians rolled through the preliminary round in Toronto with next to no real tension. They outscored their Czech, American and European foes 14-3, trailed for all of 89 seconds and led for more than 50 minutes in each of the three games.

Though Russia's recent history at tournaments featuring the game's top players is riddled with disappointment, including a fifth-place showing on home ice at the 2014 Olympics, they pose by far the biggest threat to Canada yet.

If sometimes disappointing, Russia's lineup again inspires fear. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko front a dangerous top line with Evgeni Malkin, Nikita Kucherov, and Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin hovering just below.

There's enough game-breaking talent here to threaten the Canadians in a single-elimination setting.

"For us, there can't be any casual moments with how dangerous some of these players are," said fourth-line centre and penalty killer Ryan O'Reilly. "You give them opportunity, they're going to create and they're going to bury them and make us pay."

What's really in question, though, is how Russia will match up with Canada.

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There's little breathing room in a Canadian lineup that starts with Sidney Crosby, continues with Steven Stamkos and ends with Joe Thornton and Matt Duchene, the latter tied for the tournament lead with four points. Canada is so deep that even slowing Crosby and linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand means contending next with Stamkos, Getzlaf and John Tavares.

All but two players have at least a point for Canada thus far. Nine different players have scored.

"I think the strength of our game is we can make a team defend [and as a result] they're just not going to have the energy to come up the ice and make any plays on us," Tavares said.

The Russian defence may not have the strength to keep up.

Nikita Zaitsev, who's yet to play an NHL game, forms an inexperienced top pair with 25-year-old Dmitri Orlov, while the second tandem includes an aging Andrei Markov. Contending with waves of Canadian talent will likely prove difficult for this group.

In all likelihood, the Russians will need goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to outduel Carey Price – a tall task certainly.

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Despite breezing through the preliminary round, the Canadians don't feel as though they've hit their peak just yet. And that's how Babcock would probably prefer it. He wants his team rising to the point of excellence at short tournaments such as this. He hoped his team would find a line between emotion and anxiety ahead of the matchup with Russia, spotting some tension in an otherwise thorough 4-2 victory over the U.S. on Tuesday night.

"Everybody likes to be in the 50/50 situation when you're good at what you do because that's where the fun's at, because that's where the anxiety is, that's why you're in the game," Babcock said.

Canada has evolved into a wrecking ball in big games since that thorough destruction of Russia in 2010. Their last loss in best-on-best play came against the U.S. in the preliminary round of the Games in Vancouver.

"It's just an expectation to win," forward Logan Couture said of Canada's ability to perform on the big stage. "When you come into an event and you throw on the Canadian jersey the expectation and the feeling in the room is that we want to win and we're here to win. I think big games bring out the best of everyone."

Forward Jonathan Toews said that attitude developed from actual performance in such moments. Still, he was wary of overconfidence and dismissed the notion that Canada simply "cakewalked" through its first three games, noting moments of near-tension against the Americans.

Canada just outlasted Russia in the final pretournament game with a 3-2 overtime win. Though players on both sides didn't think the tilt offered much insight into Saturday's matchup, the formula was there for how Canada could fall on Saturday: Bobrovsky turned aside 45 of 48 shots to give his squad a chance.

"The team's only as good as you finish," Getzlaf said. "Everyone can say our team's the best one ever put together, but if we don't win then they're not going to say that any more."

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