The appetizers are over. On to the main course.
Sunday could go down in U.S. Olympic history as a memorable day, and it’s not even one that the men’s hockey team can win a medal on. That could come later.
When the U.S. and Canada face off in each team’s third and final preliminary game on Sunday, more than just a bye to the quarterfinals will be at stake. It will be a momentum- and confidence-building victory for whichever team comes out on top. And we know which team the pressure is squarely on.
“There is pressure, no doubt about it,” NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk said via phone from Vancouver. “Canada has been good at times and at other times they’ve looked ordinary. I don’t want to use the word rattled, but they’ve looked on their heels at times, especially in that game against the Swiss.”
Olczyk is referring to a 3-2 shootout win Canada endured against Switzerland. In it, the Canadians gave up a 2-0 lead and easily could have lost in the four-round shootout. It puts them behind the 2-0 Americans in the standings. The U.S. has six points, Canada has five, but still sports a 2-0 record.
Olczyk points to a couple of keys making the difference come Sunday.
“The Americans have to clean up some of those odd-man situations,” Olczyk said. “Against the Canadians, it’s going to be an old meat-and-potatoes type of game. They’ll have to chip the puck in and then go get it. It’s going to be a typical NHL high-caliber type of game. For me, it comes down to how smart these teams are in the neutral zone.”
Olczyk liked the progress the U.S. team made from its first game, a 3-1 win over Switzerland, to its second, 6-1 over Norway.
“They looked a whole lot fresher throughout the course of the game,” Olczyk said. “They didn’t hit a wall like they sort of did in game one.”
“As for Canada, it’s a work in progress,” he said. “They’re still trying to find the right combinations. Mike Babcock really shortened his bench in that game early in the third period.”
Part of that shortening came at Brent Seabrook’s expense. The Chicago Blackhawks defenseman played less than nine minutes in each of Canada’s first two games, but that’s not really a knock on Seabrook, says Olczyk.
“These are the best players in the world, and some Hawk fans may not be used to not seeing their players in key moments whether it’s on the power play or at the end of games,” explained Olczyk. “That’s the way that it is.
“There are numbers and just because he [Seabrook] doesn’t get a lot of time in one game doesn’t mean he won’t get called upon for bigger minutes in another.”
Olczyk says the rest of the Hawks who will participate Sunday have played well to this point and he pointed to Patrick Kane making the biggest jump from game one to game two when he scored his first Olympic goal.
“Patrick Kane was much better,” Olczyk said. “I thought he hit a wall coming in with all the travel and stuff but he looked much better in Game 2.”
Kane played more than any other U.S. forward, 18:22, in Game 1 but that number came down to 16:34 in Game 2. He leads the team in shots on goal, having registered four in each game. Jonathan Toews played just over 13 minutes in Canada’s first two games, registering an assist in the 3-2 win over Switzerland.
Olczyk believes the U.S. team has to find some secondary scoring and that may be difficult considering the defense they’ve brought to the Olympics.
“They don’t have an American defenseman that is in the top 25 in scoring in the NHL,” Olczyk said. “I’m not saying that means everything but you have to be able to generate from your back end.”
As for the long awaited matchup between Hawk stars in Sunday’s game, before they left for Vancouver they more than intimated there will be no palling around for these 60 minutes.
“You’re not friends when you’re out there,” Toews explained. “It’s a competition. Its fun to go up against a teammate like Patrick [Kane] and you don’t want him to get the best of you, so you have to give that effort and make sure that it doesn’t happen. I look forward to being on the ice with him at the same time.”
“They might light me up,” Kane said. “Duncan [Keith] lit me up in training camp this year. I was reaching for the puck, going for the puck, and I didn’t expect it at all and he labeled me. That was training camp. This is the Olympics so I would expect it.”
“Nobody is out there to hurt anybody, but obviously everybody has to play hard,” Keith responded. “You can’t take anyone lightly, but at the same time I realize he’s [Kane] on our team. I don’t want to see anyone get hurt but I especially don’t want to see him get hurt.”
“The stage is set,” Olczyk said before hanging up the phone.
It is, indeed.