TORONTO — One by one, the Canadian players strolled into the media room at Air Canada Centre on Thursday afternoon for an off-day availability at the World Cup of Hockey.
The team’s semifinal opponent had yet to be decided so questions and answers were broad in nature. There was talk about the process, doing the little things right, and sticking to what has worked in three straight round-robin victories.
The Canadians have been playing so well, it really seems as if it is up to the opposition — it ended up being Russia in the semifinals — to figure out a way to beat them rather than the opposite.
That went unsaid Thursday, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Canada (3-0-0) is the only team with a perfect record. It has allowed just three goals overall, controlled the play for extended stretches and is averaging almost five goals and over 43 shots a game.
The Russians were in control of their own destiny entering play against Finland on Thursday. A 3-0 victory assured them of second place in Group B and eliminated North America, the speedy squad of players age 23-and-under from Canada and the United States.
There are several reasons why the reigning Olympic and World Cup champions are favored to win again. Canada’s goaltending has been strong, the team rolls four strong lines and the defense is tight.
The Russians, meanwhile, have a solid netminder in Sergei Bobrovsky and are anchored up front by forwards Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. There will be no shortage of motivation on Saturday night for a team eager to eliminate Canada on home ice.
“The opportunity is huge,” Ovechkin said. “They have a pretty good team with solid players. We just have to match it.”
The Canada-Russia semifinal offers a renewal of a classic hockey rivalry, though fans will likely be disappointed they won’t get to see the Canadians take on the highly skilled young guns on North America.
It made no difference to Team Canada.
“We’re more focused on playing our game, our system,” Canadian forward Brad Marchand said. “You might have to tweak a couple things here and there but for the most part, we’re more concerned about how we play. Our style, how our effort is. Just working hard and normally when you do that, good things can happen.”
Head coach Mike Babcock said his lineup will be announced after practice Friday. Ryan Getzlaf, Shea Weber and Carey Price are good bets to return after getting a rest Wednesday night in a 4-1 win over Team Europe.
Canada’s offensive depth has been on display throughout the tournament.
The top line of captain Sidney Crosby, Marchand and Patrice Bergeron shone in a 6-0 rout of the Czech Republic last Saturday. The fourth line of Joe Thornton, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly was strong in a 4-2 win over the United States a few days later.
Assistant captain Jonathan Toews took a turn in the spotlight with a three-point night against Team Europe. The offense has been in top form even though star forwards Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Getzlaf are still looking for their first goals of the tournament.
Russia finished round-robin play with a 2-1 record, scoring eight goals while giving up five against.
“It’s going to be a great, great challenge and we accept it,” Russian forward Evgeny Kuznetsov said.
Team Europe will play Sweden in the other semifinal Sunday. The best-of-three final series begins Tuesday night.