US Olympic Hockey Team 2014: Preview for Men's and Women's Matchups vs. Canada

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US Olympic Hockey Team 2014: Preview for Men's and Women's Matchups vs. Canada
Petr David Josek/Associated Press

The United States and Canada will battle for hockey superiority twice in as many days. On Thursday, the dominant women's sides face off for the 2014 Winter Olympic gold medal. Then on Friday, the men's teams will play for a spot in the championship game.

Recent results on the biggest international stage favor the Canadians. They won both gold medals four years ago in Vancouver with wins over the United States in the final. The women's teams played earlier in this year's event and Canada came out on top, 3-2.

The Americans must find a way to reverse that trend if they want to end up atop the podium. Knowing that, let's examine both Olympic clashes between the rival nations and make predictions for each.

 

Women's Gold Medal Game

The United States and Canada are the two best teams on the women's side by an extremely large margin. As Pauly Kwestel of the CBS Sports Radio Network points out, 95 percent of the title games in the Olympics and World Championships have featured the two nations:

Although the sport as a whole would benefit from a more level playing field, the lopsided results have allowed the Americans and Canadians to forge an intense rivalry. It's taken to another level when playing for an Olympic gold medal.

In the first meeting of the tournament between the two sides the United States held a 1-0 lead heading into the third period. Despite that, the game wasn't being played at the uptempo pace that favors the Americans. It was a slower physical grind, which is the game Canada wants to play.

Sure enough, it paid off for the reigning champions, who exploded for three goals in the third to pull out the 3-2 victory.

In the rematch, the American offense, led by Amanda Kessel and Hilary Knight, must find a way to use the larger ice surface in Sochi to its advantage. Otherwise, Canada is going to impose its physical style on the game once again.

Petr David Josek/Associated Press

The best way for the United States to use that speed and skill is rushing down the wings. Catherine Ward and her fellow Canadian defenders are going to clog the middle of the ice, so the Americans must use their quickness on the outside to stretch the defense and open up the slot.

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That will also lead to more puck possession. In the third period of the group-stage game, the Americans mustered very little sustained time in the offensive zone and generated just three shots because Canada was winning the one-on-one battles and controlling the puck as a result.

If the Americans can use the wings to gain the zone then set up shop, the constant pressure is eventually going to break down a very strong Canadian defense.

Ultimately, Canada has done a terrific job of neutralizing the United States offense in these high-profile games. The style of play will dictate whether it can do the same this time around, but it implemented its game plan perfectly last time and therefore holds the slight edge again in the rematch.

Prediction: 2-1 Canada

 

Men's Semifinal Game

While the United States was cruising past the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, Canada was struggling with what should have been an overmatched Latvian squad. It pulled out the 2-1 victory on a late blast by Shea Weber, but it was hardly convincing.

For the Americans, the win was a continuation of what fans witnessed throughout the group stage—a very solid two-way effort from all four lines to wear down an opponent. It's a group that can't match Canada's pure offensive talent, but could very well be a better all-around team.

Ken Belson of the New York Times passed along comments from Ryan Callahan after eliminating the Czechs. He pointed toward the win over host nation Russia as the point when things really starting picking up for the team:

That Russia game was an emotional game for us. It gave us a lift and confidence, and we've been rolling ever since, but we're going to have a tough one the next one.

Canada hasn't been clicking on all cylinders yet. It certainly wasn't anywhere near its best against Latvia, which put a real scare into the heavy favorites. And a lot of what happens on Friday depends on how the Canadians bounce back after that lackluster effort.

Make no mistake, Team Canada still has more than enough talent to blow away the competition over the final two rounds en route to another gold. The task for the United States is making sure to avoid letting its rival build confidence early.

Latvia knew it had no chance to keep pace with Canada in a quick-paced game, so it hunkered down defensively. Even though it allowed Sidney Crosby and Co. to generate 57 shots, very few of them were great scoring opportunities. A lot of long-range efforts without traffic, which are easy stops at this level.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The United States has a lot more offensive talent than Latvia, so it doesn't need to play so conservatively, but defense is the top priority. It can't allow Canada to get on a roll by tallying a quick goal or two, energizing a star-studded roster that hasn't played up to its potential quite yet.

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Goalie Jonathan Quick will obviously play a key role in that process. There were questions heading into the tournament about whether he deserved the starting nod over Ryan Miller. He's played great so far, but that will be forgotten if he doesn't step up again over the next two games.

If the defense does its job early, players like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel and new household name T.J. Oshie should be able to handle the rest.

The United States has been the better of these two teams so far in the tournament. Although there's certainly a chance everything finally clicks in for Canada, the Americans can avenge the loss from four years ago with a win. Expect them to seize that opportunity.

Prediction: 3-2 United States

 

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