If you’re the American hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, you’re probably feeling pretty good right now.
After all, the USA breezed through the preliminary round with relative ease, dropping Slovakia 7-1, Russia 3-2, and Slovenia 5-1. The Americans then followed that up with a convincing 5-2 win over the Czech Republic in their quarter-final elimination match.
The offense is firing on all cylinders. The USA’s 20 goals are best out of all four remaining teams, and winger Phil Kessel is the tournament’s leading scorer with five goals and three assists in four games. The team is no slouch defensively, either, having only allowed six goals in four games thanks to the staunch netminding of starter Jonathan Quick and backup Ryan Miller.
Overall, the United States have been the best team in these games up to this point. Hands down.
But for Canada, the team that the USA will face off against in one of Friday’s two semi-final matchups, the feeling couldn’t be a more polar opposite.
The odds-on favourite before the Olympics began, Team Canada has struggled to find their themselves. They’ve looked hesitant. Off. Lost.
An opening victory over Norway by a score of only 3-1 was worrisome, and things didn’t look all that much better despite a 6-0 romp over Austria. Now, following two scares that were too close for comfort, a 2-1 overtime win over Finland in the preliminary round and a 2-1 regulation win over the upstart Latvians in the quarter-finals, tensions surrounding Team Canada are nauseatingly high.
The team defense has looked good, allowing only three goals in the four games to lead all teams, but the offense, a supposed source of much strength, has all but dried up. Sidney Crosby hasn’t scored. Nor have Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, and other NHL superstars.
With Team USA flying high and Team Canada stuck in a rut that they can’t seem to get out of, surely the Americans will have a huge advantage when the two countries meet in Friday’s elimination game, right?
Well…not so fast.
Despite the USA’s stronger play up to this point thus far, Canada’s trials and tribulations could end up being what turns the tide in their favour.
As strong as the Americans have looked so far, has the team faced a true challenge? Slovenia has been brave, but still has a ways to go, while Slovakia and the Czech Republic have both fallen apart at the seams since the tournament began. The toughest opponent that the USA has faced so far has been Russia, in a game that the Russians controversially came within inches of winning, but they too have struggled heavily and have never looked as good as they should have.
Team USA will certainly head into Friday’s match with a lot of confidence, and possibly even a bit of cockiness, as they look for revenge from 2010 against their Canadian rivals. But has this team been fully tested up to this point? Is it ready to handle a new level of adversity?
The Canadian team, meanwhile, is already on the edge, following their nerve-wracking games against the Finns and the Latvians. Although those results are far from what was desired, and Canada has yet to face a team as strong as the USA, the argument could be made that the team, after having stared elimination in the face, is now more awake than it was before. Having faced more adversity so far, the Canadians could be better suited to handle the pressure of another historic match against their new biggest rivals.
When push comes to shove, so to speak, is Team Canada more prepared than the Americans are to shove back?
Making things even more interesting is the fact that Canada still has all the tools it needs to really fight back. Despite the misleading 2-1 result on Wednesday, Canada outshot Latvia by a whopping total of 57-16, controlling the puck for the entire game, as they have in every game since. Canada’s shooting percentage is only a miniscule 7.7%, a number that is well overdue to go up and back to a more normal median. If the intensity picks up high enough, and Team Canada can finally put all the pieces together to actually finish their scoring chances, no team remaining is more dangerous.
Caged animals, the story goes, are more dangerous than free ones are, and the Canadian team is certainly the cagier of the two heading into Friday. Will Team Canada have enough fight and will it be enough to stop the momentum of the high-flying USA team?
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL