Canada can exhale once again. It has a golden date with Sweden set for Sunday.
Canadian fans have been nervous. They anticipated the worst and hoped for the best. Well, they got the best on Friday with a flawless 1-0 victory over the United States that has the entire country only now truly believing a third gold medal in the last four Winter Olympic Games is a possibility.
Few would have predicted a single goal would be scored in the semifinal game between the previously potent Team USA and a star-studded Team Canada at the Sochi Games men’s hockey tournament. If they had, it likely would have been in favor of the Americans, who through four previous games sported the deadliest offense featuring the tournament’s top scorer in Phil Kessel. They outscored their previous opponents 20-6 with only one game’s outcome in doubt—the group stage matchup against the host Russians the U.S. claimed in a shootout.
Canada, meanwhile, plodded through the preliminary round without impressing much in a marginal victory over Norway in its tournament opener, a blowout against Austria and an overtime win against Finland. The defending gold medalists gave much of the country’s hockey fans some serious heartburn in a quarterfinal against Latvia that left its hopes of repeating in doubt until a Shea Weber goal with less than seven minutes left gave Canada a 2-1 win that looked way too difficult for a potential Olympic champion.
There have been doubters all the way along that Canada would be able to back up its title of the undisputed best team on paper by finally becoming the best team on the ice. Any questions as to whether or not those stars would finally shine have been answered. And the shine from Canada’s now-guaranteed medal will be either gold or silver.
Carey Price was outstanding, stopping all 31 shots he faced. A few of them were highlight-reel-worthy—including an early glove save on U.S. defenseman John Carlson and a desperation kick with the right pad on a deflection at the top of his crease during a penalty kill later in the contest—but the Montreal Canadiens goalie was given every opportunity to make most of them look routine thanks to what is hands-down the best collection of blueliners in Sochi.
Price credited his teammates while talking to CBC after the game: “Our backchecking was excellent, our forecheck was good ... the effort was there.”
Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Weber, Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Pietrangelo and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were magnificent, keeping Kessel and his linemates Joe Pavelski and James van Riemsdyk at bay, and making sure Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Zach Parise and T.J. Oshie barely got a look at Price.
Aside from that single scoring chance Kessel had in the first minute, which might have woken up the Canada defense, the Toronto Maple Leafs star was limited to three more shots from the outside.
The Meat Line of Backes, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan that had been so effective in the quarterfinal win over the Czechs combined for zero shots—not even bad ones—and couldn't keep pace with the much quicker Canadian forwards. Coach Dan Bylsma limited their ice time as a group and Brown was basically stapled to the bench in the third period.
Oshie played fewer than 10 minutes. Van Riemsdyk barely played a dozen. Bylsma had no option but to keep sending Kesler, Kane and Parise back out there as the only line that seemed capable of getting into the same postal code (that's a zip code for the Americans in the audience) as the Canadian defenders. Throw defensemen Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh into that top five and you've accounted for nearly half (15) of the 31 shots.
Only Paul Stastny's jam that went through Price's legs and past the post came anywhere near the goal-line.
Granted, it's tough to score if you don't have the puck. And Canada owned that black rubber disc on this day. Only two Canadian forwards, Rick Nash and Marty St. Louis—who didn't play a single second as the extra man—failed to register at least a shot at Quick.
The one goal that was managed on the day was a thing of beauty, with Jamie Benn essentially working a give-and-go with Bouwmeester. Benn dished a no-look backhand pass to the point and Bouwmeester sent a hard pass back at him, which Benn redirected past Jonathan Quick to become Canada’s newest hero.
Benn was elated while talking about it on CBC: “It doesn't get much better than that. We didn't sit back. We tried to go after these guys and control the play. They can’t do much if we have the puck on our stick.”
They had it plenty. It’s a team built for speed, and that speed finally showed against the Americans. The only question remaining is whether or not it will be on display against the Swedes on Sunday.
So much emotion was poured into the rematch of the 2010 Vancouver Games' gold-medal contest that people might easily forget the mission isn’t yet accomplished. Team Canada has one more game to play, and it comes against the top-seeded Swedes.
Who will win the gold-medal game?
Much like the United States before the semifinal, Sweden hasn’t yet seen a team as talented as Canada in the tournament. And as solid as the Swedes have been in the absence of leaders like Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, it will take a monumental effort to keep pace with the Canadians, who were loose and lively after the semifinal game.
“We enjoy ourselves out there,” Canada center Ryan Getzlaf told NBC’s Pierre McGuire after the game. “And obviously we enjoy winning.”
There’s one more to enjoy. And for Canadians, it won’t be nearly as stressful to watch now.