Friday at noon, millions of peoples’ eyes will be fixated on their TV’s, or computer monitors while they pretend to work during the USA vs Canada semifinals match. Friday’s game is a rematch of the ’02 and’10 gold medal final games, which both ended with the Canadians atop the scoreboard, and the podium. Canada is looking for a repeat, while the United States is looking for revenge.
If the game was played on paper, the United States wouldn’t stand much of a chance. Canada boasts one of the greatest lineups ever – containing four Rocket Richard Trophy winners, two Norris Trophy winners, two Hart Trophy winners, eleven gold medalists, multiple Stanley Cup champions, and a Conn Smythe winner. By comparison, the US team only has the hardware edge in Conn Smythe trophy winners, with two (Quick and Kane). Unfortunately for Canada, the game isn’t played on paper. It’s played on the ice, where the US men have looked like the better of the two teams.
The Canadians have struggled, despite being significantly more talented than each of their opponents. They have failed to use their speed and talent advantage, allowing opposing teams to clog the neutral and offensive zones. This forced them to take low percentage, outside shots, that has resulted in only eleven goals all tournament. They needed overtime to beat a Finland team that was without its top three centers, and needed a late third period goal to beat a putrid Latvia team in the quarterfinals.
For Canada to win they will need to adjust their offense. They must breakout quickly to combat the physical play along the boards, and to create lanes and holes in the United States defense generating more real scoring opportunities. Playing a slow game against the boards – the way they have the first few games – plays into the United States strengths. Most importantly, they must convert on the scoring opportunities when generated, which won’t come easy against goalie Jonathan Quick. The failure to convert scoring opportunities has arguably been Canada’s biggest weakness in Sochi. Something else to note will be how head coach Mike Babcock replaces center John Tavares who was lost for the remainder of the tournament with a torn MCL.
Meanwhile, the US team has thoroughly dominated nearly every team it has faced this tournament. They have played fast, and physical. They use their speed to open lanes and win races into the corners, to create chances for the wingers and defensemen. They use their size at center to clog the front of the net and put in rebounds. On the defensive end they play aggressive. They don’t allow the opponent any space, and wear them down with physical play. The results have been a tournament leading 20 goals, and only 6 goals allowed.
The question moving forward to the Canada game is how, or if, they adjust. Offensively, I do not believe that the Americans can play the same back and forth game against Canada that they played against Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Canada holds the speed and depth advantage, which previously benefited the US against weaker opponents. The Canadians have four elite lines that the US cannot afford to trade scoring chances with. Playing fast paced against Canada plays to their strength, as they possess more speed and more offensive fire power. That style of offense makes it harder for the US to dictate the pace, and can result in them losing control. You saw it for a stretch in the first period of the quarterfinal game when the Czechs scored.
The US must slow the game down a bit, while continuing to play physical in the corners and crashing the net. No other team in the tournament has gotten in front of the net and applied pressure to Canadian goalie Carey Price. I expect that to be something the US tries to exploit to rattle Price.
Defensively the formula is the same. The US will force Canada out wide as their previous opponents have. The US will be physical, and try to knock the Canucks off the puck and off their game. They aren’t going to keep the Canadians from generating shots and scoring chances. Canada simply has too much firepower, but they can limit them.
Backes vs Crosby – David Backes will be matched up with Sidney Crosby. It’s something he has excelled in during his NHL career, holding Crosby to just 4 points in 7 career matchups. That falls well below his career average. If Crosby is able to get lose for a goal or an assist, it could be bad news for the US. He is the leader of that team, and can score in bunches when he gets going. Backes will need to keep him in check.
Quick vs the Canadian Offense – As is frequently the case in big games, I expect the goalies to be the story of this game. In this game, I expect Quick to be the main storyline. As the Conn Smythe trophy winner, he showed during the Kings Stanley Cup run two years ago, he comes up in pressure situations. He has the ability to almost single handedly steal a game. If the Canadians struggle to get to him early and Quick gets into a groove, it could be bad news for their hopes to advance.
No team has won back-to-back gold medals since NHL players started participating in the Olympics 16 years ago. I expect the United States to continue to ride their recent momentum. They come in to this game vs the Canadians as confident as ever. I believe they make the necessary adjustments, and get a few timely saves from Quick, to ultimately win the game.
Final Score: 3-2 USA. The US will continue on to the gold medal game to face Sweden, and will defeat them for their first gold medal since the 1980 Miracle on Ice.