Saturday, February 27, 2010
Canada-United States Preview
One more time -- and now it's for all the marbles.
When the United States and Canada meet Sunday for the second time during these Olympics, the men's hockey gold medal will be on the line.
Perhaps a bigger prize will be bragging rights.
With 14 players age 25 or younger, this new generation of Team USA wasn't given much of a chance to get here. Certainly not like host Canada, where hockey is revered on all levels from Newfoundland to British Columbia and therefore was simply expected to skate away with gold.
The Americans will be looking to beat Canada on its own turf -- one week after defeating their northern neighbors to close out the preliminary round. Team USA also hopes to do so on the 50th anniversary of winning its first gold, and 30 years after the "Miracle on Ice" team literally came out of nowhere to stun the international hockey world on its grandest stage.
"We believe we can win," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "I'm not guaranteeing we're winning the game, but we certainly believe we can. And why shouldn't we believe we can win the game?"
Why, indeed. The Americans have faced every challenge thrown their way and are still undefeated.
"We all talked, 'Wouldn't it be nice?' and now we have the opportunity," said Ryan Miller, who's allowed five goals while getting five wins and should get strong consideration as tournament MVP. "We have the talent. We have some youthful excitement, we have the right kind of veteran players."
Despite beating Canada already, there's also this payback angle: In 2002, the Canadians were celebrating after having won their sixth gold and Olympic high-tying 12th hockey medal by beating the United States in Salt Lake City.
"When it comes to hockey, nobody likes each other," Canada forward Corey Perry said before the Olympics.
Losing once already to the U.S. has been a painful experience felt across the Great White North. A second loss would be excruciating, then devastating.
"We love the chance of playing them again," Canada forward Jarome Iginla said. "There's a lot of rivalries with them -- from world juniors through the ladies. They beat us. Now we have the opportunity to play them again. It's going to be exciting, for the gold medal."
Both clubs have taken vastly different yet entertaining roads to reach this point.
Team USA rolled through the opening round, capped by last Sunday's shocking 5-3 win over Canada. They blanked Switzerland in the playoffs before what should have been a tough semifinal game versus Finland.
That matchup with the defending silver medalists, however, was decided in short order Friday when the U.S. scored all its goals in the first 12:46 in a 6-1 rout.
Hold off on any celebrations, though.
"We haven't won anything yet," said Zach Parise, who scored his third goal of the Olympics. "We're getting better and that would be the most important and rewarding thing."
While the U.S. has shown an unprecedented level of dominance, Canada has displayed an ability to pick itself up off the mat for the first time.
After falling to the Americans for the first time since 1960, Canada was faced with the daunting task of winning four straight games in six days.
Three down -- barely -- and one to go.
With dominating victories over Germany and Russia already in hand, Canada wasn't tested much before giving up a pair of third-period goals and later withstanding a late flurry to hold off Slovakia 3-2 on Friday.
"This was a good test for us," said Canada forward Sidney Crosby, who at 22 will try to add a gold medal to the Stanley Cup he won with the Pittsburgh Penguins eight months ago.
Coach Mike Babcock was half-smiling afterward, saying the U.S. should be favored. Defenseman Shea Weber added, "They did beat us, but now it's a whole different game."
Canada has the edge on offense with eight players having scored at least six points each compared to two on Team USA. The key will be Roberto Luongo, the captain of the hometown Canucks.
He took over for future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur after the loss to the Americans, and though Luongo was solid in two wins after that and through two periods against the Slovaks, he can be rattled.
"We're going to go right after them from the puck drop. We're going to have to get in his (Luongo's) face," American forward Ryan Kesler said of his Vancouver teammate.