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February 21, 2014

US vs. Canada Hockey Semi-Final

NBCSN-Noon eastern, live stream here.

This is the rematch weíve been waiting for for four years.

Unfortunately itís in the semis, instead of the gold medal game because Canada couldnít take care of Finland (Benís favorite team) in regulation time of the last round-robin game.

So we will just have to extract our revenge when we can and look forward to playing Sweden who beat Finland in the Dirty Scandi Bowl (aka, the other semi-final) for the gold.

But is Team USA good enough to beat the team many had as the gold medal favorites coming into the tournament? Surprisingly the answer isÖ.I donít know.

The US was the 2nd ranked team behind Sweden after the round-robin and led all teams with 20 goals scored. This was particularly good news because goal scoring was expected to be a problem for this team.

So all is good for Team US, yes? Well, no.

While they had no problem handling teams like Slovenia, Slovakia and an elderly Czech Republic team in the quarterfinals, there was one noticeable blipÖthe shootout win over Russia in the round-robin. Now a win is a win you may say and thatís true but Russia was the only remotely peer competitor the US has faced thus far and they almost blew it. If not for a disallowed goal with a little over 4 minutes left in the game the US might very well have lost to a disappointing Russian team that was bounced in the quarters by Finland. Even with the fortunate net off the mooring call it took 4 extra rounds in the shootout to put the Russians away. One less goal by T.J. Oshie or one less save by Jonathan Quick and the Russians win that game and the whole tournament might look very different at this point.

Fortunately things arenít exactly rosy across our northern border. Team Canada was supposed to be so loaded at forward that they were able to leave a guy like Claude Giroux home because hey, who needs another crazy talented forward on a team filled with perennial all stars, scoring leaders and future Hall of Famers? Well, it turns out Canada does. For all their fire power up front and my God do they have it, their forwards have been outscored by their defensemen. Two of their defensemen, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber to be exact. Doughty/Weber have 7 goals so far, all Canadian forwards have 6 (that includes 3 from Jeff Carter in a game against noted hockey power, er, Austria). That is not how Hockey Canada imagined this when they drew up their game plan.

This match up is happening in the semis and not the gold medal game because Canada couldnít put Finland away in overtime. And this match up almost didnít happen at all because they barely beat Latvia in a game that shouldnít have been any more challenging than an intra-squad scrimmage for them. A 20 year old AHLer making 50 plus saves against the mightiest of the mighty from the NHL? Sure, we all saw that coming.

So while Team USA has met every challenge put before it, thereís still a nagging feeling that they really havenít been tested by an A level team. On the other hand, Canada simply isnít playing like an A level team thus far. Will the scare from Latvia be the wake-up call this insanely talented group needs to get going or are they really just a collection of incredibly great players that canít seem to get out of each otherís way?

Iím pretty confident that no matter which Team Canada shows up today, the US can handle them. Theyíve had two more days to practice together and work on some of the looseness that has occasionally snuck into their game (odd man rushes against and occasionally ill-advised breakout passes).

Thereís no doubt that the US can skate with Canada, especially on the blue line (watch the top US pair of Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh, so much talent). Up front the Kessel-Pavelsky-van Reimsdyck line has been flying and scoring almost at will, while the Backes-Brown-Callahan unit will run you over all day long while playing a skilled offensive game very few others in the world can match. In goalÖyeah. Look, Jonathan Quick is great. Heís a Conn Smythe Trophy winner (best player in the playoffs) and a Stanley Cup champion so heís got the game. Itís just not a game that makes you comfortable watching. He throws himself around like a reckless Dominick Hasek and while it works for him, itís scary as hell.

Canada meanwhile has to get their forwards going. Itís hard to imagine Canada getting to the gold medal game, let alone winning it, with Sidney Crosby stuck on 2 assists. Yes, he contributes a ton more than just offense but heís the best player in the world. That kind of offensive production isnít going to cut it. Unlike in an NHL game or series itís very hard to wear down defensemen with physical play on the big ice surface but unlike the other teams the Canadians have faced, the US forwards should be quick enough to get out and defend against Weber/Doughty and to make them think twice before joining the play as much as they have been (especially Doughty).

If this were a best of 3,5 or 7 series Iíd be very comfortable saying the US wins more often than not. In a one game elimination scenario a crazy hot goalie (Hello Latvia!) or a crazy bounce (Hello Russia) can turn the game.

But even though I donít think you can read too much into the play of either team coming into this one, the US clearly is the team playing most like it wants to be playing and executing closer to ideal in all areas of the game. For those reasons Iím picking the US to win and advance to the Gold Medal game where they will face down the Scand menace from Sweden on Sunday.

digg this
posted by DrewM. at 11:45 AM

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