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And so, it all comes down to a battle of the borders – Canada against the United States, Sweden against Finland – to decide which two will play for the coveted gold medal.
After a day of massive surprise – Finland handily beating pretournament favourite Russia, Latvia taking Canada deep into the third period – the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics men’s hockey tournament enters the rounds that will decide the medals.
On Friday, the Americans and Canadians will reprise their gold-medal clash in Vancouver four years ago, which Canada won when now-team captain Sidney Crosby scored in overtime.
“It’s a nice chance for redemption,” U.S. captain Zach Parise said Wednesday, after a 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic.
The U.S. win was predicted, but not much else has gone according to expectations in this tournament. Hockey’s two biggest names, Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, are missing on the scoresheet if not exactly missing in action.
Ovechkin played his final game as if in a stupor, his four-year dream to join his mother, a two-time Summer Games champion in basketball, as a gold-medal Olympian lost in sluggish play. Crosby, while still in the tournament, has now played with so many wingers he has had to write their nicknames on the back of his gloves.
The game is being played on big, international-sized ice, but the quality of the ice is not good, according to the players, and big-ice defensive strategies – clog the centre, keep shooters to the outside, create a thicket of sticks, legs and bodies between puck and goalie – have proved remarkably effective.
The only teams that have mastered scoring are the U.S., with 20 goals after four games, and Finland with 18. Sweden has 15.
Canada has 13, with more than half of those (seven) from the defence – Drew Doughty with four, Shea Weber with three, including the winner against Latvia.
The Canadian forwards have gone mostly dry. Crosby, the hero of the 2010 Vancouver Games, is without a single goal, and has been reduced to two assists. U.S. forward Phil Kessel, on the other hand, has five goals to go with his three assists.
“I don’t know if it’s the bigger ice or the way teams are playing defence,” U.S. winger Patrick Kane said. “It’s tough to get chances.”
But all the same, the Americans seem to get them – or make them.
Wednesday against the Czechs, the Americans quickly proved they could score when it matters, going ahead 3-1 in the opening period at Shayba Arena.
James van Riemsdyk scored a weak one on goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, Dustin Brown was all alone at the side of the net for the second and David Backes closed out the opening period scoring on a goalmouth scramble. The Czechs, meanwhile, scored courtesy of the U.S. defence: Ryan Callahan cuffed a loose puck out of the crease area only to have it hit the skate of Ryan Suter and pop back into the net back of goaltender Jonathan Quick. (Ales Hemsky got credit for the goal.)
Parise, in the second, and Kessel, in the third, finished out the scoring for the Americans. Hemsky scored late to make it 5-2.
Minutes later, when the Canada-Latvia game ended 2-1, the opponents were set for Friday’s semi-final.
“It’s two great teams,” Kane said. “I think it’s the matchup everyone wanted to see.”
Canada and the U.S. are hardly strangers in the Olympic hockey playoffs.
They first met in 1920, when the Winnipeg Falcons took gold in an April event for the Antwerp Summer Games. The Canadians had to squeak by the Americans 2-0, before whipping Sweden 12-1 in the final.
They most recently met in gold-medal games in Salt Lake City in 2002, and Vancouver in 2010.
The first is remembered for a non-play – Mario Lemieux letting Chris Pronger’s pass slip between his legs so Paul Kariya could fire home a goal that eventually led to a decisive 5-2 Canadian win. The second is recalled for Crosby’s “Golden Goal” at 7 minutes 40 seconds of overtime to give Canada a 3-2 win.
The two central characters of that drama – Crosby and U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller – are again playing for their countries, though it is likely Quick will start Friday.
The Americans are fast, well-coached and have been playing with set lines that work.
“Top to bottom,” U.S. forward Paul Stastny said, “everyone’s clicking and everyone’s playing that team game.”
“The game when these two teams meet brings out the best in everyone,” Parise added. “We know how hard it’s going to be.”
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