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Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Road to a Rematch by @griffTHW

At long last, it comes down to this.  Kind of.

Four years after the iconic tally that brought both relief and euphoria to all of Canada, the United States will finally seek revenge, hoping to skate past the Canadians on their way to Sochi's gold medal game.  And, while this contest lacks Vancouver's championship drama, it does provide the victor with an opportunity to shed the stigma of a North American national team that wilts on international-sized ice.

This time, though, expectations have shifted, at least for one country.  Sure, the Canadians have sites on taking home a second consecutive Olympic gold and, given their loaded roster, it's easy to see why.  But, for the Americans, four years and almost 6,000 miles have made a world of difference.  Because, while they may have overachieved in snagging the silver in 2010, simply medaling in Sochi won't cut it for this squad.  Indeed, the U.S. arrived in Russia with capturing gold in mind and anything less would prove a disappointment.

Despite such high expectations between the two, though, the Canadians and Americans head into their showdown trending in seemingly opposite directions.

For their part, Canada entered the tournament as, at least on paper, the team to beat, a collection of talent and depth that few could possibly match.  Possessing unparalleled strength down the middle that anchors a squad complimented with skilled wingers and an imposing blue line, it wasn't hard to imagine the Canadians breezing through group play en route to another gold medal.

But, despite facing a rather lackluster quartet of opponents (their only truly significant competition coming courtesy of Finland) through the quarterfinals, the Canadians have provided more questions than answers in Sochi.  After an uninspiring victory against Norway, an overtime win against Finland and the survival of a nightmarish threat from Latvia, Canada has stumbled more than strutted to a semifinal matchup with the Americans.  Sidney Crosby has produced only a pair of assists through four games, more than half of the team's goals (seven of 13) have come courtesy of two blue liners and the team just lost John Tavares for the remainder of the tournament.

Despite all their struggles to this point, though, the group remains confident:

"We feel we have quality players who have gotten quality opportunities, real good looks, and we haven’t scored. It’s my experience over time with playoff-type hockey (that) this stuff happens. In the end, though, you can’t usually keep the skilled guys who score and are determined down. I’m optimistic to say the least...What matters is we had an opportunity to advance, we had an opportunity to play (again)..." - Mike Babcock, on Canada's Olympic performance to this point
Meanwhile, the United States entered the tournament surrounded by question marks.  Omitting sharpshooter Bobby Ryan from the roster, for example, left some questioning the firepower of the team, wondering if they could keep up on the scoreboard with the world's elite countries.  Furthermore, a Scott Burnside article served to shed light on exactly how the team was pieced together.  And, for many, it proved quite controversial.

Luckily, the Americans escaped the scrutiny as soon as group play began.  Outside of a wildly entertaining shootout victory over the Russians, the U.S. dominated their opponents.  Answering questions regarding how potent their offense could be, they've paced the tournament in scoring, posting 20 tallies (including the deciding shootout marker against Russia) in just four contests.  Along the way, they've surrendered just six goals, asserting themselves as one of the most complete clubs in Sochi.

Built on speed, physicality and an overall team effort, Dan Bylsma's boys look like world-beaters entering their semifinal showdown with Canada.  What's more, their confidence seems to grow with every contest:

"It's a great opportunity...we've opened up a lot of eyes with our play, but we have more in the tank to give and to show...We keep getting better every game and hopefully we'll keep getting better after this one." - Max Pacioretty, on the U.S. Olympic effort
All bets are off when the team's clash on Friday, though.  Because, despite the dominance the United States displayed over the last week and, regardless of how many question marks the Canadians created for themselves over the same period, anything can happen in a loser-goes-home matchup. 

Yes, the Americans' game seemingly improves with each outing, providing more and more confidence for a team with its collective eyes on the ultimate prize.  But, if the Canadians can finally solve their scoring woes, they're clearly more than capable of dashing U.S. Olympic dreams for the second time in four years.

Regardless of what happens, it's proven an interesting road to a much anticipated rematch.  And, if the drama from the 2010 gold medal game was any indication, we're in for a treat when these two teams finally clash again on Friday.

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