Although this chapter of the North American rivalry won’t have the same type of climax as the gold medal game in Vancouver, it is sure to stir plenty of strong emotions and make America’s northern border a bit more visible. The United States’ hockey culture has often played second-fiddle to its Canadian adversary, with Canada annually putting together a roster which is widely regarded as the most talented in the tournament. Even as this is just a semi-final game, the allure might be just as prominent going in as Canada’s famous victory four years back.
Not in recent memory have the two teams been so evenly matched in the Olympics, as the USA have primarily been looked at as an underdog with the talent and work ethic to certainly garner Canada’s respect. This has only fueled the fire surrounding the game, as players and fans (and Vegas) are looking at today as a battle of equals, anticipating a grinding one-goal game.
“There’s a lot of animosity, a lot of feelings like there’s something to prove between both teams”, said Canada’s assistant captain Jonathan Toews. It will be particularly interesting for him, joining teammates Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharpe in a fight against fellow Blackhawk Patrick Kane. From the Penguins perspective you have Dan Bylsma coaching against Sidney Crosby.
Canada’s offense against America’s defense was the focal point of the match up going into the tournament. Canada’s offense has vastly underachieved, as they are coming off an embarrassing scare against Latvia, finally pulling out a 2-1 win with a late Shea Weber goal. In fact, their defense has accounted for more goals than their offense, with defensemen Drew Doughty and Shea Weber leading the charge. Doughty leads Team Canada with 4 goals and 6 points, respectively. Meanwhile, Ryan Suter leads a shut-down American defense that also features Stanley Cup winning goaltender Jonathan Quick, the backstop for Doughty’s Kings.
They will also look to contain Crosby, as his lackluster numbers have been a hot button issue for the Canadian coaching staff as well as fans. I think I’ve heard every possible line combination and excuse for him not producing more. Two points in four games wouldn’t be a concern in any other capacity, but with the pressure of the Olympics and being the best player in the world, producing at a time like this is essential to his legacy as Crosby is starting to be looked at by some as the Peyton Manning of the NHL.
Crosby has two assists and six shots on goal in the Olympics. Over his last 11 games (7 NHL, 4 Olympic Games) Crosby has just one goal. A fascinating matchup to watch will be David Backes going head to head with Crosby. Backes one of the best “200 foot” players in the world, has the ability to drive Crosby nuts in today’s game and Backes shut Crosby down in a matchup this season between the Penguins and St. Louis Blues.
The most intriguing part of the game for me will be to see how Carey Price responds to the pressure of facing the high-scoring American offense, compounded by the stress of being in the cage for the Canadian national team. He has yet to face a team, or a game like the one he will see today. The Canadian’s have played exemplary defense, allowing just three goals in four games, with Price playing consistent, but without seeing much rubber.
The US have scoring from throughout their lineup, using their speed and toughness to create chances from all over the ice. In watching the USA games, it is apparent they can get to the tough areas as well as set up plays around them. It has been the most impressive dynamic of their team, and probably the tournament thus far.
My favorite quote of the tournament came from David Backes of the St. Louis Blues when he was asked about playing his Canadian teammates. ”We had that conversation before we left,” Backes said. ”We’re going to wear our country’s colors and play as hard as we can for our countries. We’ll figure out those relationships when we get back to our respective teams. Maybe it takes a cold beverage and someone has to buy dinner, but we’ll smooth that out after.”
That statement alone is what single-handedly draws me to the sport of hockey. Often times in professional sports, the athlete is playing for the name on the back of the jersey rather than the front. Backes exemplifies the sacrificial culture of the professional hockey player, showing that for at least three hours, he will have a passionate hate for guys he would normally consider friends, if not brothers.
Pulling over the USA sweater supersedes any type of relationship with anyone else who hasn’t done the same. It is what has driven this game and its fans for the past 100 years. It’s why hockey fans embrace hockey being called a niche sport, because we get it and screw those who don’t. For those of you who have had the luxury of doing so in your personal lives, you know what I’m talking about.
Whether it be playing for your high school team or your country, there is a switch that flips the second that jersey comes on. It gives you the willpower to take a slap shot without hesitation or a crushing hit to clear the zone. Both teams will flip that switch today around noon with four years of bragging rights and the pride of their native country hanging in the balance.