USA vs. Canada: Line-by-Line Breakdown of 2014 Olympic Men's Hockey Semifinal

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistFebruary 20, 2014

USA vs. Canada: Line-by-Line Breakdown of 2014 Olympic Men's Hockey Semifinal

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    Friday's semifinal contest between Canada and the United States will see a rematch between the two teams that fought for the gold medal four years ago in Vancouver. There, Sidney Crosby was able to score the dramatic overtime winner to propel the Canadians to gold.

    This time, the prize isn't gold; it's merely the right to compete for gold, but in some way that makes the stakes higher. The loser of this match may end up without a medal, while the winner has a chance to come away with everything. 

    How do the two teams match up this time around? 

    To answer that question, we will go through the depth charts of each club in the following slideshow, comparing their forward lines and defence pairings. Read on to see who, on paper at least, holds the edge in this game. 

First Line

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    LW James van Riemsdyk, C Joe Pavelski, RW Phil Kessel

    Team USA, like Team Canada, opted to build its top line on the chemistry between two teammates. Unlike the Canadian entry, though, the American plan seems to be working. Kessel has been the most dynamic player of the tournament, and van Riemsdyk came up big against the Czech Republic. San Jose pivot Pavelski has settled in nicely between them.  

     

    LW Chris Kunitz, C Sidney Crosby, RW Patrice Bergeron

    Canada's first line is arguably less potent across its components than other units on the team. Kunitz, a competent two-way player, was never seen as much of a scoring threat until he started playing with Crosby. Bergeron is one of the best two-way centres in the NHL, but isn't scoring much this season. But between those two is Crosby, the consensus best player in the world. 

     

    Advantage: United States

    On paper, the Canadian line should be better. But in this tournament, Crosby et al. have entirely failed to produce offence, while the Kessel trio have been the most potent line in the tournament. As Mike Boone of Canada.com put it: "One stat speaks volumes: Phil Kessel has five goals in the tournament. Canada’s forwards have six."

Second Line

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    LW Zach Parise, C Ryan Kesler, RW Patrick Kane

    Parise scored his first goal of the tournament on the power play against the Czech Republic, but his offensive game at even strength remains weak. Uniting him with Kesler and Kane, both of whom have been dangerous, may help to bring out his scoring.

     

    LW Jamie Benn, C Ryan Getzlaf, RW Corey Perry

    Arguably the most physically imposing line at this Olympic tournament, Canada's second scoring line brings more than just a crash-and-bang game. Getzlaf currently sits second in the NHL scoring race with 67 points, Perry is a former NHL MVP and Benn is an up-and-coming star flirting with the point-per-game mark in Dallas. The trio has done an ice job of generating chances, but hasn't scored much at the Olympic level to date. 

     

    Advantage: Canada

    With both lines having all of one even strength goal between them, we have to defer to NHL work. At that level, while Kane is a tremendous player, the balance favours the Canadian line. 

Third Line

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    LW Dustin Brown, C David Backes, RW Ryan Callahan

    Team USA's designated defensive line had been predicated on a duo of elite two-way forwards: Backes and Minnesota Wild winger Zach Parise. With Parise elevated to a scoring line, Backes now finds himself flanked by two tough, gritty primarily defensive forwards (though both Brown and Callahan can find their way around the offensive zone). This is a tough, physical line with a singular focus on defensive play. 

     

    LW Patrick Marleau, C Jonathan Toews, RW Jeff Carter

    Canada's "checking line" brings much more to the game than defence. Carter was the team's most effective goal-scoring forward through the group segment of the tournament, while Marleau briefly led the team in overall point scoring. Jonathan Toews is extremely well-regarded as an elite two-way forward and all three players pursue the game with a healthy regard for defence.

     

    Advantage: Canada

    These are two very similar units, and while Backes flies under the radar at the NHL level he's a surprisingly close match for Toews. The primary difference is on the wings, where Canada has more offensive talent than the United States. 

Depth Forwards

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    LW Max Pacioretty, C Paul Stastny, RW T.J. Oshie, RW Blake Wheeler

    Team USA's fourth line has alternated between extremely impressive and quite troublesome, generally depending on the calibre of the opposition. All of them are useful NHL players, and the power games of Wheeler and Pacioretty in particular should come in handy against Canada. 

     

    LW Patrick Sharp, C Matt Duchene, RW Rick Nash, LW/RW Martin St. Louis

    Canada's depth took a huge blow with John Tavares' injury against Latvia, but it remains a formidable group. Three veterans with great career accomplishments are joined by an up-and-comer at centre, and that pivot (Duchene) is uniquely suited to the Olympic ice thanks to his intelligent game and blazing speed. 

     

    Advantage: Canada by a hair.

    This is almost a wash. At centre, even Colorado coach Patrick Roy can't decide between Stastny and Duchene (separated by a single second of average ice time). Oshie's a shootout ace, but Nash has extensive international experience and a sterling record. Sharp has 28 goals in the NHL to Pacioretty's 26. The difference is the gap between St. Louis, who led the NHL in scoring last season, and Wheeler, who didn't.  

First Pairing

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    LD Ryan Suter, RD Ryan McDonagh

    There is a lot to like about the uber pairing that Team USA's coaching staff has formed here by moving New York Rangers No. 1 defender McDonagh to his off side. Both he and Suter, the top rearguard in Minnesota, are exceptional two-way defenders.

     

    LD Duncan Keith, RD Shea Weber

    Two perennial Norris Trophy candidates anchor Canada's top pairing, and both players bring much more to the equation than just point totals. Weber is an incredibly physical top defenceman who does everything well while Keith has been the No. 1 rearguard for two Cup-winning teams in Chicago.

     

    Advantage: Canada 

    Suter might be a match for one of Keith/Weber, but McDonagh is just slightly below the other three players in the NHL's defenceman pecking order. 

Second Pairing

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    LD Brooks Orpik, RD Paul Martin

    Team USA and Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is using his team's best defensive pair at the Olympics. Martin brings a range of skills to the equation and a comfort with playing on the right side, while Orpik adds a physical element to the blue line.

     

    LD Marc-Edouard Vlasic, RD Drew Doughty

    As with the top pair, on its second defensive unit, Canada has in Doughty a No. 1 defender from a Stanley Cup champion, and he's played up to his history to date in the Olympics. Vlasic is an outstanding shutdown option at the NHL level, but isn't at the same level as his partner. 

     

    Advantage: Canada 

    Vlasic is a superior version of the same player that Orpik is, while Doughty is easily the best of the four defencemen on this list. 

Depth Defencemen

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    LD Cam Fowler, RD John Carlson, RD Kevin Shattenkirk 

    With the United States' top two pairings so concerned with shutting down the top opponents on the other team. this pairing has been used in a lot of cases to support the American attack, something that all three players here excel at. 

     

    LD Jay Bouwmeester, RD Alex Pietrangelo, LD Dan Hamhuis

    The top pair for the St. Louis Blues has been transported in its entirety to form Canada's third pair. As with the second pair, it's an unbalanced unit, with Pietrangelo a true No. 1 defender at the NHL level and Bouwmeester not quite at the same level. That's likely why Hamhuis has been used over Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban; there's a much better chance that somebody on the left side will need replacing than someone on the right side.  

     

    Advantage: Canada

    This is actually another extremely close comparison, but the only player on this list who is a bona fide difference-maker in the No. 1 role at the NHL level is Pietrangelo, and that gives Canada the edge. 

Goaltenders

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    Starter Jonathan Quick, Backup Ryan Miller

    Team USA had a tough choice in the crease, but ultimately opted to go with Quick, the Kings starter famous for pedestrian regular season numbers but stellar playoff runs. So far, Quick's been solid, posting a 0.935 save percentage to this point of the Olympics, but Miller remains a fallback option of Quick struggles early against Canada.

     

    Starter Carey Price, Backup Roberto Luongo

    Canada has two above-average No. 1 NHL goalies to choose from and has opted to go with the younger Price over incumbent Luongo. Both are strong options, and both played in the preliminary round, meaning that if Price falters the Canadians won't hesitate to turn to Luongo—as they did when they won gold in 2010. Price has a 0.941 save percentage on the tournament. 

    “(Price) doesn’t have too many weaknesses, so I’m not going to tell the boys too much obviously,” American Max Pacioretty, a Montreal Canadiens teammate of Price's, told reporters in Sochi. “Just like any goalie you got to try and not let him see the puck. It’s the only way you’re going to beat him.”

     

    Advantage: Canada

    Quick has played well to date in this tournament, but hasn't yet faced a challenge quite like Canada, and his poor regular season performances of the past two years undermine an otherwise excellent reputation. Price is having a phenomenal season in the Montreal fishbowl and behind the porous Montreal defence. With that said, this is close enough to go either way when the game is actually played. 

Summary

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
    • First Line: United States
    • Second Line: Canada
    • Third Line: Canada
    • Depth Forwards: Canada
    • First Pair: Canada
    • Second Pair: Canada
    • Depth Defencemen: Canada
    • Goalies: Canada

    Going through the rosters of these two teams line by line, there seems little reason to doubt that the Canadian team has better talent at almost every position—at least on paper. The difference is that the United States' team has been getting the most out of its players, while Canada has struggled to convert a lofty shot differential into compelling wins.

    Nowhere is the difference more evident than on the top line, where Phil Kessel's unit has impressively outperformed the Sidney Crosby trio.

    The question is this: Will Crosby and Canada rise to the occasion, as they did against the U.S. in the gold medal game in 2010? Or will they continue misfiring, while Team USA skates to victory? 

    That's why they play the games. Whatever the team looks like on paper, with the way these two teams have played to date nobody knows what the outcome will be.