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Canada's scoring struggles in the early stages of the 2014 Sochi Olympic men's hockey tournament drew sympathy from an unlikely source: United States captain Zach Parise.
Parise cut his teeth in a New Jersey Devils organization known for its smothering defence and, thus, may have a greater understanding of what Canada went through in its first four games, playing against Norway, Austria, Finland and Latvia.
It wasn't pretty, but hockey sometimes isn't.
With the exception of the Austrians, who had no discernible style or system in place, the other teams defended ferociously, and in the case of Norway and Latvia, played what can only be described as anti-hockey. They dropped players back to the goal crease and clogged the lanes so badly no matter how many shots the Canadians put toward the net, nothing was getting through.
Parise made a smart point: The U.S. and Canada, which will meet in the semi-finals Friday, got to this point in the tournament by going down separate paths – Canada facing all these defensive teams, the U.S. meeting clubs prepared to trade chances with them.
"The teams we played had a lot of good offensive players and we did a good job of keeping them off the score sheet," Parise said. "The Canadians played very defensive teams that were trying to win the games 1-0. That can be tough to play against.
"Regardless of the route, I don't think we can sit here and say because we played Russia, the Czechs and Slovakia, we're more prepared than they are. I think that's irrelevant."
No, the path to get here doesn't matter as much as the fact they ultimately did advance.
Canada's players were eagerly anticipating the shift in playing styles against an American team that's succeeded in scoring goals. Aesthetically, it has a chance to be the best game of the tournament – more flow, more back and forth, more of everything really.
"You probably will see a little bit of a different game – not so much clogging up the middle," Canada forward Jeff Carter said. "I think guys are probably looking forward to it."
No more than anxious television audiences, aching for more action and a few more memorable Olympic moments than they've witnessed to date.
"What I feel has worked for us has been to be on the attack," said Parise, who then cautioned Friday won't completely resemble an NHL game. "You still have to respect the fact that it is an Olympic [ice] sheet and whether you like it or not, the game is different.
"With that extra room, you can't do some things you can do on a smaller [NHL] sheet. For example, the power play in my opinion is a lot tougher on the Olympic sheet. With the blueline being closer, you feel you can take away the top guy a lot easier – and that takes away a lot of the options."
The Americans may represent the most dangerous opponent for the Canadians thus far, but they welcomed the challenge – if only to get people to stop talking about what's gone wrong with the offence.
"I know a lot of people are worried about us not scoring and stuff like that, but against a North American team, I think this is where we really pick it up and show how we can score," said defenceman Drew Doughty, who leads Canada with four goals. "Guys are going to step up to the plate and put pucks in the net. And [the U.S.] are going to have guys that will be flying, too. We match up really well against each other. I think it's going to be the best game of the tournament."
The Americans deserve real credit for how well they adjusted to the ins and outs of international hockey – far better than even the European teams. Perhaps it is because so many of their top players came through a centralized development program in Ann Arbor, Mich., but whenever they assemble for a hurry-up tournament, the growing pains on the American side seem minimal compared to other clubs.
Patrick Kane believes there's more to it than simple familiarity, however.
"We just have a really good group," he said. "I think we've got a lot of different dimensions – skill, that physical presence, good defence, good goaltending. Anyone would be honoured to have any of these 25 guys on their team regularly."
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