For the third time in the last four Winter Olympic Games, the United States and Canada will face each other in a final-four game. The last two meetings (2002, 2010) were for the gold. This is for a chance to play for the gold.
What a game it figures to be.
This much can't be denied: The U.S. comes into this game playing better hockey than Canada. The Americans are scoring lots of goals, getting good goaltending from Jonathan Quick and really moving the puck up the ice thanks to a fast, forward-thinking defense.
Something just seems amiss with the mighty Canadians. Who would have ever believed they would go to a third period tied with Team Latvia, as was the case Wednesday in the quarterfinals? The Canadians needed a dubious slashing call to get a third-period power-play goal to beat the mighty Latvians 2-1.
And yet, Canada still hasn't lost in this tournament.
And until proven otherwise, they are the favorites in this game. But not by much.
Canada has played with a distinct lack of emotion too often in this tournament. There's not enough chatter on the bench, not enough grit and grind on the ice. The Americans have looked like the team having a blast. But if previous tournaments are a guide, the Canadians still own an edge in swagger and mystique.
Other than a preliminary-round game against Finland, Canada has had a ridiculously easy draw so far. It's had problems taking teams seriously, at least a little, it seems. That is never a problem against the Americans. And, vice versa.
So, get up Friday morning for what figures to be a fabulous hockey game.
The following slideshow will break down the matchup further, with broadcast information.
The puck drops at high noon, ET, on Friday, Feb. 21. That's noon Eastern, 11 Central, 10 Mountain, 9 Pacific. Got it?
Mike "Doc" Emrick (above) and Ed Olczyk will call the action for NBC.
Should Team USA keep playing a wide-open style?
Coach Dan Bylsma has really given the green light to all his players, most notably his defense, to jump into the play. That certainly has worked so far offensively, as the Americans scored five more times in their quarterfinal win over the Czechs Wednesday and have 20 goals so far in the tournament (four games).
But what about that little "defense wins championships" bromide? There have been times—especially for a long stretch of the first period against the Czechs—when Team USA gave up a lot of good chances to the opposition with their wide-open style. Against a smart team like Canada, with probably the tourney's best overall defense, that style could backfire.
Will Sidney Crosby use this game to really get going?
People forget that Crosby had been fairly quiet to that point in the Olympics when he scored the Golden Goal for Canada against the U.S. in 2010. He's the best player in the world still, and here he is in a semifinal game against the Americans again. He always seems to rise to the occasion, and this game could be no different.
Will the loss of John Tavares make a tangible difference either way for Canada?
The bad news came after Canada's win over Latvia: John Tavares would be lost for the rest of the tournament with a knee injury. (Now we know why NHL owners hate the Olympics.)
Tavares figures to be replaced in the lineup by fellow 2009 draft pick Matt Duchene of the Avalanche. Canada has a fantasy-league roster with or without Tavares, but it will be interesting to see how his absence affects the team. Duchene played a couple of games, but was the lone healthy scratch among the Canada forwards against Latvia.
Forwards (Subject to change)
- Chris Kunitz—Sidney Crosby—Patrice Bergeron
- Jamie Benn—Ryan Getzlaf—Corey Perry
- Patrick Sharp—Jonathan Toews—Jeff Carter
- Patrick Marleau—Matt Duchene—Rick Nash
- Martin St. Louis
- Duncan Keith—Shea Weber
- Marc-Edouard Vlasic—Drew Doughty
- Jay Bouwmeester—Alex Pietrangelo
- Dan Hamhuis
- Carey Price
- Roberto Luongo
- Phil Kessel—Joe Pavelski—James van Riemsdyk
- Dustin Brown—Ryan Kesler—Patrick Kane
- Zach Parise—David Backes—Ryan Callahan
- Max Pacioretty—Paul Stastny—T.J. Oshie
- Extra: Blake Wheeler
- Ryan McDonagh—Ryan Suter
- Cam Fowler—Kevin Shattenkirk
- Brooks Orpik—Paul Martin
- Extra: John Carlson
- Jonathan Quick
- Ryan Miller
- Scratches: Derek Stepan, Justin Faulk, Jimmy Howard
David Backes, USA
He's been a real horse so far in the tourney, scoring two goals against the Czechs in the quarterfinals. He's been a big, physical presence around the blue paint, and he'll need to be that way again against the Canadians. Nobody has really gotten deep on the Canadian defense and pushed them around yet. Backes can be that kind of guy, and yet he needs to stay disciplined, too—which doesn't always happen with him.
Shea Weber, Canada
His big bomb of a slap shot has made a lot of flamingos out of opponents—though the Latvians bravely stood in front of several boomers in the quarters.
He showed just how great that slapper is when it gets through, with his game-winning goal in the third period on the power play. When Canada goes on the power play, Weber's presence is truly intimidating.
Paul Stastny, USA
The Avalanche veteran has played a key role as, essentially, the Americans' checking-line center so far. He could be called upon by Dan Bylsma to match up against Sidney Crosby a lot. If anyone might have a hunch on how to play Crosby, it figures to be his NHL coach.
Jonathan Toews, Canada
It's been a fairly quiet tournament so far for the Blackhawks star, but he played a strong game against Latvia, driving hard to the net all game. He's another big-game guy, so the Americans will really have to play hard on him. Toews sometimes gets off his game mentally when opponents bump him a little, so Team USA should take that into consideration. But, as mentioned before, you can't take any bad penalties against Canada because of that fantasy-league power play.
Carey Price, Canada
He hasn't gotten much camera time in the tourney so far, as the play has mostly been down at the other end. That is likely to change in this one. Will Price's relative lack of action hurt him in a game where pucks come at him more? The Americans sure hope so. But he's the starter for the defending gold-medal champs for a reason. He hasn't faced many shots, but he's stopped the ones he's seen for the most part, with a .098 goals-against average coming in.
The Americans need to set some screens and pound bodies at the crease if they want to beat him.
Jonathan Quick, USA
His big-game ability has to worry the Canadians, if just a little. He's won a Stanley Cup and gone to the Western Conference finals the last two years with the Los Angeles Kings, and he's looked strong so far in Sochi.
Like a great pitcher, you usually have to get to Quick early. Otherwise, he tends to get better and better after a good start.
Dan Bylsma gets his team to be physical, but with discipline
The Americans have won so far with a run-and-gun style, but this is the one matchup where Dan Bylsma has to tell his team to rein things in a bit. That doesn't mean the U.S. should pack it in and be too conservative and try to win a 1-0 game.
It just means that Team USA can't get into a game of firewagon hockey and expect to beat a team like Canada. Bylsma should look at the tapes of previous Canada games and take a cue from teams such as Norway and Latvia. Although badly outshot in both losses, the Norwegians and Latvians weren't afraid to get in the faces of Canada's stars and hit them.
If the U.S. can find a good mix of its already-established speed and flash with some grit and sandpaper, it'll have a better chance of winning. If they think they can win a track meet with the Canadians, they'll likely be sorry.
The tricky part: staying out of the penalty box, while still playing that way.
It starts playing with some genuine emotion again.
Canada has looked just too robotic so far. It is controlling play and winning games, but there has been a bland, corporate feel to the games so far. Not enough emotion. Perhaps that is unavoidable when you're Goliath in most every matchup.
The Americans have historically brought out that fire and grit that is Canada's usual hallmark, so a matchup against it again in a final-four game could be just what they need.
No team has won back-to-back gold medals in men's ice hockey since the Russians (three times, in 1984, '88 and 1992—the last one when they were known as the Unified Team).
And, sorry, Canada, it won't happen again this year. Canada has a great roster, but it's been clear so far that it has some chemistry issues—on ice, not off. The offense has looked out of sync a lot of the time, probably because there are just too many great players, but only one puck.
The Americans seem to know better what their roles are, at least offensively. Canada has four No. 1 lines, but you need muckers and grinders, too, to win championships.
Team USA looks more unified as a team, and they've got the intangible of hunger on their side. They can reasonably match the Canadians when it comes to talent, and that little extra bit of desperation will make the difference in the end.
Predicted score: USA 4, Canada 3.