By Sean Hartnett
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It’s the rematch that the entire hockey world has been waiting for.
The U.S. will have a chance to bury some nasty demons on Friday when it faces border-rival Canada at noon in the Olympic semifinals.
Four years ago in Vancouver, current U.S. captain Zach Parise scored an unforgettable goal with just 24.4 seconds remaining that forced overtime in the gold-medal game.
Parise and his teammates celebrated with enthusiastic, unrestrained emotion in front of a stunned predominantly Canadian crowd, while Americans gathered in their homes and packed bars, hugging one another with fervent delight.
It seemed like USA Hockey’s moment to ascend to the top of the podium was near. But that dream was soon deflated by Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner. The NHL’s poster boy had become a full-blown Canadian hero by snatching gold from the Americans on home soil.
The situation has changed significantly at this year’s Sochi games. Back in 2010, the Americans were overreaching underdogs that weren’t expected to medal. Now, they’re playing like the top team at the Olympics, while Canada escaped embarrassment by pulling out a narrow 2-1 victory over Latvia to reach the semifinals.
TALENTED CANADIANS ARE STRUGGLING TO FIND CHEMISTRY
Heading into the tournament, Team Canada was widely considered the favorite to win the gold medal. Right now, they’re playing nowhere near their full potential. Canadian head coach Mike Babcock has constantly juggled his forward lines and hasn’t found any semblance of chemistry in recent tight wins over Latvia and Finland.
Defensemen Shea Weber and Drew Doughty have bailed out the Canadians in consecutive games and their forwards are struggling to catch fire. Top forwards Crosby, Rick Nash and Jeff Carter aren’t carrying enough of an offensive load. Each have only registered one point in their past three games and have been held without a goal during that stretch.
The absence of injured Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos is looming like a black cloud over this team. Canada has received a further damage to its firepower, as New York Islanders center John Tavares is out for the remainder of the tournament due to a torn MCL. While Tavares was held without a point in four Olympic games prior to the injury, he’s a world-class talent. It’s now up to replacement Matt Duchene to fill the role centering Nash and Patrick Sharp.
Despite their injuries and offensive struggles, this Canada team is uber-talented and capable of breaking through at any time. After some tough luck and being a healthy scratch earlier in the tournament, Sharp is picking up his game. Strangely, both Sharp and Martin St. Louis are playing limited roles for Canada.
St. Louis is barely seeing the ice. The reigning Art Ross trophy winner and renowned Olympic scorer was originally left off Canada’s roster before being named as Stamkos’ replacement. Canada is light on goals and needs more of St. Louis’ clutch, veteran presence.
USA IS FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS, BUT EXPECT A TIGHT SEMIFINAL
The United States has dominated so far. Unlike Canada, the U.S. chemistry clicked into place immediately at the start of the tournament.
Team USA has proven that they’re equally adept at winning physical battles in the dirty areas of the ice as they are at winning games in a track-meet style with an abundance of speed and finesse.
Toronto Maple Leafs winger Phil Kessel has carried his NHL hot streak into the Olympics. Kessel has been the player of the tournament thus far, as he’s leading all Olympians with eight points in four games.
Kessel is a part of the most dominant line at the Olympics, as he’s centered by playmaking center Joe Pavelski and power forward James Van Riemsdyk. Opposing defenses have little answer to Kessel’s explosive skating ability, elusiveness and howitzer of a shot.
Meanwhile, the Dustin Brown-David Backes-Ryan Callahan line is playing like a force of nature, causing destruction all over the ice with their tenacious and physical style of play. Backes recently coined the nickname “The Meat Line” for the group that is wreaking havoc on everything in its path.
Of course, all of the skill and might of the Americans will be thoroughly examined against the Canadians. As poorly as Canada has played in recent games, it could flip the switch at any time and finally play the kind of hockey everyone is expecting.
Will Canada retain their seat as hockey’s ultimate power? Or will the United States dethrone them on their way to the gold-medal game?
We’ll soon find out.
My guess is that the U.S. wins a tightly contested game that matches the intense drama of Vancouver’s final.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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