This isn't 2010. As much as the buildup surrounding this game, which pits Team USA and Team Canada against each other in a semifinal matchup that determines who moves on to play for a gold medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics, has been soaked with references to what happened four years ago, these aren't the same teams that took the ice in Vancouver for perhaps the most thrilling hockey game of the past decade.
The main difference is that the Americans are a lot better. No longer are the likes of Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Malone playing key roles up front or dreadful defensemen like Jack Johnson or Ryan Whitney manning the blueline (of course, Brooks Orpik exists but still). Since Sidney Crosby's golden goal in Vancouver, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel have emerged as preeminent offensive threats, easily as dangerous as the most talented forwards Canada has to offer. For all the questionable decisions by the American brass in putting together this roster and icing it (and there have been many), this iteration of Team USA is certainly capable of hanging with the Canadians to a greater extent than the last time these nations met in Olympic action. And, even back then, an overtime period was necessary to determine gold.
Granted, Team USA's blueline still isn't nearly as dynamic as Canada's and there's still a sizeable gap in offensive talent between the teams' bottom-six forwards. So Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff have an important decision to make: should they attempt to outgun Canada, hoping the likes of Kessel, Kane and Pavelski can outscore Crosby, Toews and Getzlaf? Or should they take a page from the well-worn playbook Canada's opponents have been reading throughout this tournament and employ a conservative, collapsing defensive-zone system that compels skaters not to chase outside the dots and (at least in theory) limits quality scoring opportunities? It's an interesting debate and what Team USA clearly has going for it that the likes of Latvia and Austria did not is that their forwards can finish on the inevitable chances to counterattack they will receive. But there's an equally sound argument to be made that gameplan would be selling the Americans' skill short; after all, they do lead the tournament with 16 goals through four games.
Regardless of the outcome, it's going to be a hell of a hockey game and at least one Shark will end up playing for gold as a result. Here's hoping it's Joe Pavelski, who has the chance to avenge a loss he nearly averted with an overtime scoring chance four years ago.
|2-1-0-0, 8 points
||2-1-0-0, 8 points|
|1st in Group B
||1st in Group A
9AM PST | Bolshoy Ice Dome | Sochi, Russia | TV: NBCSN