Olympic Hockey: Canada-USA to clash in Sochi

Sidney Crosby, Olympic Hockey.

Sidney Crosby, Golden Goal. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not surprisingly, Team Canada and the U. S. will square off in a one-game decider at the 2014 Winter Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi. Quite unfortunately, the meeting will occur in the semi-finals, rather than the gold medal game.

At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the Canadians and Americans met twice. Both sides won once, but America’s win came in the preliminary round, while Canada’s decided medal colour in the tournament’s final game. Americans were heartbroken; Canadians, elated. Crosby played hero, along with Toews. Meanwhile, Parise, Kane and the bunch saw their best efforts fall short, in the end. Gold.

North America is divided at its largest border. Over the next 48-hours friends will become foes and Twitter will be a war-zone for trolls, patriots and passionate hockey people from Halifax to California. It will be very entertaining, and if you’re the type who gets offended easily, very infuriating, too.

In the North, Canadians will converse about hockey at local pubs and coffee shops while they anxiously await the looming border battle. The hope is: the national team will peak at the right time and deny the Americans a golden opportunity.

Team Canada’s Olympic brand has a recent history of putting-it-all-together in the final hour of tournament play to secure victory. After rocky starts at Salt Lake City 2002 and Vancouver 2010, Team Canada cracked the whip and hit full stride down the stretch to claim gold over the Americans – both wins serving as USA’s only loss in each tournament.

In the South, hockey fanatics will feel a pit in their stomachs as they await a dreadful possibility: losing another important Olympic hockey game to their northern neighbours. For Americans, I’d imagine that beating Canada to earn a date in the gold medal game would serve as wonderful redemption for 2010. From Pittsburgh to Seattle, American’s must want revenge for Sidney Crosby’s death blow at Canada Hockey Place; the goal that will forever be known as “Golden.” The truth is, Team USA was very close four years ago. 2014 might be their turn to win Olympic hockey gold, which is something America’s men have not done since they performed a Miracle at Lake Placid 1980.

Eleven members of Canada’s current twenty-five man roster won gold in Vancouver. The U. S. roster has thirteen returnees from four years ago. That’s half a team made up of proud Americans with a sour taste in their mouths and an opportunity to be rid of it.

The Americans have more to prove than Team Canada. Since NHLers began participating in the Winter Olympics in ’98, Canada has won gold twice in four tries. Sweden and the Czech Republic have each had one golden moment, as well. Team USA – along with Canada – is the only Olympic hockey national team to reach the gold medal game more than once since 1998, but both trips have produced silver results.

So far in Sochi, Team USA has looked more impressive than the Canadians. Phil Kessel of the Maple Leafs seems to have smuggled his NHL scoring streak out of Toronto to the delight of his fellow Americans. Number 81 has 5 goals in four games to lead the tournament. That Phil is on fire.

Between the pipes, Jonathan Quick has made the saves required of him and been savvy enough to prevent goals against by any means necessary. Given his proven ability to perform when the going gets tough – like he did repeatedly for the L. A. Kings en route to a 2012 Stanley Cup title – the Americans are money in goal. In one-game elimination scenarios, money in goal can buy a nation gold.

And, despite being labeled America’s weakness pre-tournament, its defence corps has held up adequately, thus far. Led by Ryan Suter and reliable partner, Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers, Team USA’s blue line has done enough to erase any worries that may have existed one week ago.

But, as good as America has been, a Canadian optimist will argue that both teams are undefeated with equal 4-0 records in Sochi. And while Team USA has scored more goals in the tournament, 20, to be exact. Canada has allowed fewer goals against, 3, in four games.

America has faced tougher teams, but its opponents have actually tried to create offence, opening up seams for Team USA to generate goals on counter-attacks and odd-man rushes. Conversely, Canada has skated against a who’s who of defensively thorough collapsing minnows, and Finland; all of which protect the house rigorously at the first sign of danger. This strategy is used by inferior hockey nations to hopefully win a game that is otherwise un-winnable. However, all it usually accomplishes is keeping the scoreline respectable for the losing side.

Hockey teams often elevate their play when they compete against a threatening or familiar foe. For example, Russia played its best game of the tournament against its toughest opponent, the United States. Furthermore, Slovakia’s strongest outing in Sochi was its Tuesday qualifier against bitter rival, the Czech Republic. So, don’t be surprised if Friday’s semi-final brings out the best in Canada and the United States. Expect that whatever has already occurred in the men’s hockey tournament will have little relevancy when Team Canada and the U. S. lock horns for a ticket to Sunday’s gold medal finale at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi.

The Canada-America hockey rivalry is at a pivotal point. Should Canada win this Friday, as they did when these two nations last faced-off four years ago, it will reinforce what was established in 2010: Canada ices North America’s best men’s national team.

However, should Team USA knock out Canada in best-on-best hockey for the first time since the 1996 World Cup, this rivalry will reach new heights; hockey fans on both sides of the border will have reason to truly fear the other. Because fear of USA Hockey is not currently prevalent in Canada. It hasn’t been since Bob Cole memorably called Joe Sakic’s 5-2 ender in Salt Lake City. Canadians respectfully acknowledge that Patrick Kane and Co. are more than capable of preventing Sidney Crosby from packing a gold medallion into his suitcase when he leaves Sochi. But, that deep rooted fear that comes from losing important games to a rival is not real in Canada right now because it’s been so long since Brett Hull and Tony Amone made Canadians feel what Americans felt when Crosby struck gold four years ago.

That being said, Canadians have tasted bite sized nuggets of American fed hockey fear at recent World Junior tournaments, most notably, an overtime stunner by current Team USA defenceman John Carlson. Friday is America’s opportunity to feed its northern neighbours a full plate of fear.