How Big of a Game Is USA-Canada?

Andrew O'BrienContributor IFebruary 28, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 26:  Phil Kessel #81 of the United States smiles after Team USA's 6-1 victory during the ice hockey men's semifinal game between the United States and Finland on day 15 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 26, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

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Every year, there is a Biggest Game Ever, also known as The Game to End All Others and The Most Important Game of Their Lives. We see it in football, baseball, hockey, and basketball, on the college and professional levels, in high schools, and, naturally, in the Olympics.

With that in mind, it's hard to put into perspective how big Sunday's gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada is. No matter who wins, the players comprising both teams will break and go their separate directions, back to their NHL employers to jump right into the stretch run of the regular season.

Little time will be left for celebration and/or dismay, but today they play for country, for that classic symbol of team on the front of the jersey. Two teams stocked full of millionaires and future millionaires are playing, for free, for national pride.

That ought to tell you something.

By virtue of having played each other, one team was guaranteed to lose at least one game in these Olympics. USA won that first meeting last Sunday, 5-3, one win out of five that has them sitting 5-0 and in position to finish with no worse than a silver medal. No one comes for silver, though, especially not a country with a proud hockey tradition.

Anything but gold will be a disappointment, not in the sense of expectation, but in the sense that the chance for gold was theirs.

Few knew what to expect out of Team USA heading into the Olympics. GM Brian Burke did not have the wealth of talent available to Canada (though it was far from Norwegian levels).

He had to make certain choices in constructing this team with an eye towards how they would play. He chose the top American players in the game, like Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, and Bobby Ryan, but built it as an actual hockey team, complete with gritty role players, unlike Canada, who stacked the bottom line with top-line NHL players who happen to play with grit.

The result was a tenacious forechecking squad willing to sell out on defense and play hockey The Right Way.

The Canadians, meanwhile, had (and still have) the weight of the world on their shoulders. It's not as if they haven't experienced that type of pressure before, but they haven't exactly thrived on it. The relative newness of this All-Star team was on display in the round-robin round, with a narrow shootout win over Switzerland a prelude to the loss to the USA. Coach Mike Babcock struggled with lines and goaltending in round-robin play.

That changed against Germany in the preliminary round, however, as Roberto Luongo became the new starting goalie and Babcock finally got the lines clicking. The result? Two blowout wins over Germany and Russia.

In the semifinals, the Americans scored six first-period goals to overwhelm Finland and turn the game into a mockery. The Canadians went up early on Slovakia only to survive a later push to advance to the gold-medal game. Finland turned around and beat Slovakia last night, 5-3, to win the bronze medal.

There will be no miracle if the Americans win. The circumstances are completely changed from that 1980 team, and this team, though they may not seem like it at times with their exuberance, are among the best the NHL has to offer. USA over Canada for gold will not be the Greatest Upset of All-Time—but we're still rooting for it anyway.

Canada won gold in 2002 on American soil at Salt Lake City, Utah. The Americans intend to return the favor in Vancouver, against The Greatest Team Ever Assembled. Puck drops at 3 PM EST.

As for who wins? Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk goes with his Americans, 3-2. Sounds good to me.