For the fourth time in the five Olympic Winter Games that the women’s hockey tournament has been contested, Team USA and Team Canada squared off in the gold medal game. For the third time out of those four meetings, it was the Canadian side that prevailed, overcoming a late 2-0 deficit and securing the gold with a 3-2 overtime victory on Marie Philip-Poulin’s power play goal.
On Friday, the men’s teams from both countries will renew acquaintances in a semi-final game to determine who will play for the gold medal on Sunday in Sochi. These two teams are plenty familiar with one another, having played for the gold in Vancouver in 2010. Canada also won that match-up in overtime on a Sidney Crosby goal that thrilled the entire nation with its second gold medal in three Olympics.
This time around though, there are some experts and fans who think that the U.S. should be the favored team, and their arguments are fairly compelling. Outside of a close 3-2 shootout victory over Russia in the preliminary round, the Americans have looked like world-beaters, winning several blowout games with a combination of stellar offense, disciplined defense, and performances from both Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller that certainly fits the Olympic model of good goaltending winning medals.
As for Canada, they have been slightly less impressive. They have played in a couple of tight games that many thought should have been blowouts, including a preliminary round victory over Norway and their 2-1 win over Latvia in the quarter-final round on Wednesday. Add to that the issues that they have found in getting Crosby consistent linemates and the criticism that head coach Mike Babcock has had to go through as he shuffles up lines and tries to find a winning chemistry with his group of All-Stars, and you can see why some folks have relegated Canada to slight underdog status for this game.
Despite those prognostications, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two sides, and in some areas the Canadians are still the superior group. They certainly have more dynamic playmakers on their blue line, with Drew Doughty and Shea Weber lighting up the score sheet throughout the Games so far. They also seem to get a key performance from an unexpected source when their stars are struggling. Whether it was Jamie Benn in the opener of the tournament, or Jeff Carter against Switzerland, the Canadian group is loaded with guys thrust into “role player” status that actually are capable of carrying the load in a big way for the squad.
Fortunately for the Americans, they too have several guys capable of leading them through tough times. Whether you’re talking about the stellar play of Ryan McDonagh, the shootout prowess of TJ Oshie, or the offensive exploits of James van Riemsdyk, Team USA has shown remarkable depth throughout this tournament, and they are proving that they have the team game that is required to win medals at this level of competition.
The question then is what exactly will separate these two teams when they face off on Friday in Sochi. On the U.S. side, one of the biggest keys will be to maintain the defensive discipline that they have shown throughout the tournament, as Canada is a team fully capable of executing a superb transition offensive strategy. With guys like the aforementioned Doughty and Weber, as well as Marc Edouard Vlasic and Duncan Keith, Canada can move the puck up the ice in a hurry, and if the U.S. defensemen are caught sleeping at the blue line, then there could be plenty of odd-man rushes in Canada’s favor.
The Americans will also need to be crisp with their passes through the neutral zone in order to set up their offense. They have largely been getting that kind of passing, with forwards like van Riemdsyk and Phil Kessel showing some of the great chemistry that they have as linemates for the Toronto Maple Leafs, while Dustin Brown and David Backes have been surprising some people with their offensive abilities after being labelled by most experts as players who emphasize grit over scoring.
For the Canadians, winning Friday’s game will be a matter of also exploiting chemistry on their forward lines, but they don’t have as good of a track record during these Games as the United States’ squad does. They have had some guys who have functioned well together in games, like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but if they are really going to be successful from a scoring perspective, then they are going to need to have star players like Crosby and Jonathan Toews find some mojo with their fellow forwards.
Also key for Canada in this game will be getting a strong performance out of goaltender Carey Price. He has been strong so far in these Olympics, but he has yet to face the kind of offensive attack that the U.S. will throw at him. The closest he came to that was in facing Finland during the preliminary round, but they didn’t exactly pepper him with shots in a 2-1 overtime victory for the Canadians.
If he can’t keep up with the barrage that a high-energy American offense throws at him, then it really doesn’t matter what kind of game the Canadian offense has. It all starts at the back end with him, and works its way forward from there.
Needless to say, this will be a fascinating game due to all the underlying storylines in the contest. Whether it’s teammates facing off (Toews vs. Kane, Joe Pavelski vs. Marleau), or the fact that this is a rematch of the Vancouver gold medal game, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful for another Olympic classic as these squads battle for a spot in the next round.