SOCHI, Russia – You wouldn’t be a hockey fan if you weren’t looking forward to tomorrow’s semifinal matchup between the United States and Canada. And you wouldn’t have a pulse as a player if you weren’t excited about playing against your biggest rival on the biggest stage in hockey.
Four years after the two teams staged an epic battle for gold in Vancouver, these North American rivals will meet again with a spot in the finals on the line.
“I don’t know if we were supposed to meet, but it seems like it was inevitable at some point that we would be meeting,” said forward David Backes, one of 13 returning members from the silver-medal winning team.
“We traveled 5,000 miles to play each other, even though we share a long border. That’s the great thing about this tournament; in order to win it you’re going to have to beat great competition. We’ve had a lot of great competition already and it continues on Friday night.”
The U.S. finished as the winner of Pool A and received a bye into the quarterfinals, where they knocked off the Czech Republic, 5-2. The Canadians, the winner of Pool B, had a much tougher time punching their ticket to the semifinals. Despite throwing 57 shots on Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis they only managed a 2-1 victory on a late power-play goal by defenseman Shea Webber.
So far in the tournament, the vaunted lineup of Canadian forwards has mustered only six goals, including three by Jeff Carter who had a hat trick in a 6-0 rout over Norway. Sidney Crosby, meanwhile, has only two assists in the tournament.
The U.S., on the other hand, is No. 1 in scoring efficiency, and Phil Kessel leads all scorers with eight points.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said all those statistics can be thrown out the window when you’re playing the Canadians.
“There was talk coming into the tournament of where we were going to find our goals and talk of the skill and the depth of the Canadian team,” Bylsma said. “This tournament comes down to one game, and it will be a one-goal game. We saw that in Vancouver.
“You don’t need a 50-goal scorer in this game, and you don’t need 80 or 100 points in a season. It’s going to be 60 minutes and it will come down to that one goal.”
While everyone is making a big deal out of the big semifinal matchup, the U.S. knows a victory in this game does not give them the color medal they came here for.
“Coming into the tournament we wanted to reach the gold-medal game, and we’re not there yet,” said forward Ryan Callahan, who has joined fellow bruisers Dustin Brown and David Backes on a line they affectionately call the “Meat Line.”
“I thought we’ve gotten better as the tournament has gone on and that’s a key for us. And now we have one more before that crucial game.”
But still, the bragging rights that come with beating such a rival is an added benefit.
Patrick Kane has had to spend the past four years with his Chicago Blackhawks teammates holding the Olympic victory over his head. Like the rest of his U.S. teammates, he’s looking forward to some redemption on Friday night.
“He’s been a class act in that regard. I wouldn’t call him a class act in some other ways,” Kane jokingly said of his teammate Jonathan Toews. “He’s been good there. [Duncan Keith] has been good, but I’m sure they want another opportunity at that situation where they can have those bragging rights over you.”