The hockey world is buzzing in anticipation for an epic Gold Medal showdown between Team Canada and Team USA following what can only be described as two crazy Olympic Semi-Final hockey games on Friday.
Crazy because Team USA scored six goals in less than a period to blowout Finland to get to the Gold Medal game.
Crazy because Team Canada came within inches of blowing a three goal lead in the final eight minutes against Slovakia to get to the Gold Medal game.
The results from two very different Semi-Final games only add to the layers of intrigue going into tomorrow’s Canada-USA rematch. Much has been made of Canada’s refocused play, following the 5-3 loss to Team USA last week. Canada has been significantly better, with much of the credit going to Mike Babcock’s line juggling and Canada’s aggressive forecheck. But let’s not forget about Team USA and how well they’ve played as a team in a short tournament like this.
Let’s talk about Team Canada
One thing that hasn’t been talked about very much is the preparation and tailored game plans Canada has created for Germany, Russia and Slovakia. Each game has offered a different look and feel from the Canadians. Credit should go to Kevin Lowe and Ken Hitchcock for designing solid game plans and terrific advanced scouting. To me, this is where the real story begins for the Gold Medal game. What will Canada’s game plan be and how will they react to the American’s game plan? The Americans are a physical team – by far the most physical team Canada has played in this tournament. Do the Canadians fight aggression with aggression? The pressure will be on goalie Roberto Luongo, too. I don’t think I can recall a game where I’d consider Luongo the underdog against the opposing goaltender. Luongo hasn’t been tested too much since relieving Martin Brodeur. The other big question I have for Team Canada is if their defensemen – namely Chris Pronger – can handle the strong forecheck of Team USA. This will be something to watch as the game goes on.
Let’s talk about USA
It’s no secret a big part of Team USA’s win over Canada last Sunday was a result of turning Martin Brodeur’s puck handling strength into a weakness. The Americans were rewarded with two goals in the first period because of this. Two goals they might not have expected. It will be a different story on Sunday as Roberto Luongo will likely avoid over-playing pucks. This begs the question, what will USA’s game plan be? Team USA are no longer the underdogs Brian Burke has made them out to be for months. They haven’t been since taking out Canada in the preliminary round. And looking at the way Ryan Miller has been playing for Team USA, some might suggest the Americans are the Gold Medal favourites. Friday’s Semi-Final win for Team USA was big for a few reasons. Not only did the score grab all of Team Canada’s complete and undivided attention, but Patrick Kane enjoyed his best game of the tournament. It’s perfect timing for a player who really needs to continue that kind of play if Team USA want to win Gold. Kane makes their second line run, so if he’s on his game, it’s two strong forward lines for Team USA. If he’s not playing well, Canada only needs to worry about Zach Parise’s line. Team USA are pretty well rested too. They coasted through the majority of Friday’s game after jumping out to a big lead very early in the first period. Unlike Canada who fought to the dying seconds of their game to win.
If you breakdown each position between the two teams, here’s where I see the advantages:
The forwards of each team will decide this team. While Canada may have a stronger group of forwards, Team USA’s seem to better understand their roles. It’s going to make for a pretty interesting chess match. While this game may not have the appeal a Canada-Russia final may have had, it definitely has more intrigue. It also has a bit more edge as Canada will either make up for their previous loss or cement USA as the undisputed Olympic Champions. There’s a lot on the line for both teams… may the best team win.
Stay classy, Olympic Hockey.