This is it, American hockey fans. This is the game we've been waiting four long years to watch. This Friday, when Team USA faces Canada in the Olympic semifinals, is a chance to get revenge for what happened in Vancouver. It's an opportunity to avenge the gold-medal-game loss in Salt Lake City, in the name of Leetch and Chelios and Modano. This Friday, America gets its payback on its Timbit-eating neighbors to the north.
Oh, there have been victories over Canada before: In the preliminary round in Vancouver, in the 1996 World Cup, in World Junior Championship play. But this Friday, the U.S. has a chance to dethrone the reigning Olympic champ, returning the favor from the last Olympics by shattering Canada's gold-medal dreams with the entire hockey world watching. A few weeks ago, I picked Canada to win gold (and for the U.S. to lose in the bronze-medal game to Russia). But Team USA's convinced me it can pull this off, no matter how mighty Canada's roster is. This Friday, the U.S. men's hockey team is going to beat Team Canada in the Olympic semifinals. Here's why.
1. The U.S. is getting scoring from multiple forward lines. Canada's barely getting any scoring from its forwards at all.
Team USA has scored 20 goals in the Olympics, the most of any country. And they're getting offense from a lot of different sources. Phil Kessel has five goals; David Backes has three; Dustin Brown and Paul Stastny have two; and eight others have scored once. Actually, not many Americans forwards haven't scored a goal. (The most surprising is Patrick Kane, though he is tied for the lead among all Olympians with four assists).
Here are the line combinations the U.S. began the quarterfinals with:
That spreads the U.S. scoring out nicely -- 19 different players have recorded at least one point -- and this gives them the kind of balance they had in mind when they assembled the roster. Now, it's worth remembering the Americans ran up the score in a few of their games, against teams that were far inferior. They won't score quite as easily against Canada, which has the deepest defensive corps of any team they've faced. (They're also much better off in goal than, say, the Czechs, who started Winnipeg netminder Ondrej Pavelec in the quarters. It didn't go well.) And the U.S. did struggle at 5-on-5 against Russia, the best opponent they've faced so far. But those issues are nothing compared to how Canada's been struggling offensively.
Canada, despite so many skilled offensive players, has gotten just six goals from its forwards in four games, with defensemen adding its other seven. A look at the team's stats is pretty unbelievable: Sidney Crosby, the best player on the planet, has been held to no goals and just two assists. And if Crosby and his teammates weren't able to break out of their scoring slumps against Latvia, they're going to have a hard time doing it against the U.S. The top line, especially, will have a tough time against the Americans: Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh were terrific against Russia's top line, which included Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, and Jonathan Quick has been solid so far, too.
2. The U.S. hasn't been playing down to opponents.
The U.S. opened the tournament by routing a disappointing Slovakia team. It finished the preliminary round by beating up on Slovenia, even if it wasn't necessarily the Americans' tightest game of the tournament. (Slovenia played better than expected in Sochi, but that doesn't mean they're particularly good.) And in the quarterfinals, against a Czech team that could have presented some trouble if given the opportunity, the U.S. dominated play for much of the game. (The Czechs controlled the action for one impressive stretch in the first period, but the U.S. weathered it and then continued to pour in goals of its own.) In other words, the United States has brought its best game, no matter its opponent.
Canada, meanwhile, let Norway hang around -- at one point in the third period, Canada led by just one goal -- and then struggled against Latvia on Wednesday. (Give Latvia, and its goalie especially, credit, but Canada -- on paper one of the great Olympic teams ever assembled -- should have had a much easier time with them.)
Playing down to the opponent shouldn't be an issue on Friday, unless Canada's offensive is in an even worse funk than we think right now. But while both teams are undefeated (including one win for each over a solid team) Team USA has more or less brought its best game in every contest so far. Canada, meanwhile, been a little bit shaky. They've shown more cracks. That's a good sign for the U.S.
3. Many of the Americans' mistakes have been fixable.
Canada's issues are big ones: It needs some of its stars to wake up, and generally needs to score more. Team USA's problems so far have been relatively minor: some sloppy line changes, some defensive positioning issues on one of the goals they allowed against Russia, and so on. The Americans' 5-on-5 play against Russia was a bit concerning, and it would be nice if Patrick Kane scored a couple goals of his own, but they've given fans fewer reasons to worry than Team Canada has.
4. The U.S. is more or less healthy.
The U.S. entered the tournament in pretty good shape, which is more than you can say about several other teams, including elite teams like Sweden and, yes, Canada. (Steven Stamkos, one of the NHL's great goal scorers, had to be replaced on the roster before the Games began.) And on Wednesday, Team Canada suffered another huge blow: John Tavares will miss the remainder of the Games with an injury.
As for the Americans, the health issues are more small-time: Kesler has a banged-up hand, but it hasn't kept him out of the lineup. Actually, Team USA's most serious injury was suffered by its GM, David Poile, who's been forced to watch from the States while he recovers from facial injuries suffered when he was hit by a puck at a Nashville Predators practice.
5. Ice size won't matter very much.
When we talk about how the Olympic-size rinks could matter, it's usually presented as, "Team X can't handle it, and Team Y is not only used to it but perfectly suited to play on it." In that example, Team X usually refers to either the U.S. or Canada, with rosters full of guys trained on the smaller NHL-sized rinks more commonly found in North America. Team Y, meanwhile, is usually a European team that's believed to be more comfortable on the big ice, using not just its speed but its experience on such rinks to its advantage.
But all that doesn't come into play in these semifinals. Both teams might prefer the smaller rink, and so the U.S. and Canada are in a similar position here. For the most part, Team USA's been fine on the big ice no matter who they've played, but whether they'd be able to do it was a topic of debate before the Olympics began (and came up as they were assembling the roster). It shouldn't be a big factor against Canada, but could be down the line if (sorry, when) the U.S. advances.