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Sochi 2014: Semifinal - Canada v. USA

Dan Waldner

Dan Waldner covers hockey for RotoWire, and has been involved in fantasy hockey pools for 15 years. He's a lifetime Toronto Maple Leafs fan, a passion his wife puts up with and his daughter is starting to emulate.

If you were caught wondering what year this is, you may just be mistaken for thinking this is 2010. Canada versus the United States; a gold medal matchup for the women, and what looks to be another stellar contest for the men tomorrow.

You may be forgiven for the mistake, but by tomorrow afternoon, it will be very clear what year it is.

Let me give you a little background about myself: I’m Canadian. Born and raised in Southern Ontario, I bleed Maple Leaf blue-and-white. Hockey is far more a religion around these parts than a sport. Olympic hockey is the most holy of events on this sacred calendar, and Canada comes to a grinding halt whenever our Boys (or Girls) in Red are on the ice.

That being said, what I’m about to say kills me. Canada will not win this game tomorrow. I’ve been right in all my predictions thus far, and this one, based on the play, will be true too. Though, I hope – nay, pray – that for once my hockey hubris gets the better of me.

The United States is a team seemingly without weakness. They have elite forwards, and lead the tournament in goals for – led by my “hometown” boys Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. While skilled, the most important aspect of their offense is speed; I’ve witnessed many a game where Kessel and JVR streaked down a wing and beat a slower, lumbering defenseman to the net, typically allowing the other one to pick up a garbage goal from a haphazard rebound. Now, as effective as these two have been in the NHL, give them another 13 feet of space on the side to beat you on, and another 10 feet in length in which to maneuver once they run out of space, and their outside speed becomes fatal.

Now, add 12 other guys just like these two, and you have a problem.

Canada has had a very problematic tournament so far. Yes, they remain undefeated, and it must be part of the Canadian psyche to worry whenever our teams don’t post up a twelve-spot against also-rans like Norway, Austria, and Latvia. Sports talk shows have been a-flutter since the Norway game about how the forward lines aren’t gelling and Sidney Crosby just isn’t going. How is the world’s best player inconspicuous? How can our defensemen be the only players scoring? You’d swear we were 0-4 instead of 4-0.

Canada most certainly has the tools at their disposal to win this game; on paper, this could very well be the greatest roster ever assembled. In reality, sometimes the whole is far less than the sum of their parts. Just ask Russia what that’s like.

Tomorrow, Canada will be confronted with a team unlike anything they’ve seen in this tournament. The US will force the game to the Canadians, and simply beat them with unmatchable foot speed.

I want to be wrong, but I’m not.

Keys to the Game

From the US perspective, they haven’t played a team as deep as Canada is individually. In that respect, neither side has played an opponent as good as they will tomorrow. The US and Russia went to a shootout, but I was always bearish on the Russian contingent. Canada’s defense is probably the best in the tournament, offering not only a stifling blanket in their own end, but also a strong scoring presence in the offensive zone. The one thing that Canada’s defense is lacking, however, is the US forwards’ speed. Fast as the Canadian blue liners are, they will have to cheat to make sure that the Americans don’t break out. That means that pinching will be held to a minimum, and once burnt a few times, the Canadian defense corps will likely retreat a few steps early to prevent getting caught flatfooted. To further the paranoia of the Canadians, the Americans will try a number of stretch passes early in the game to reinforce the need of the Canadians to retreat.

Once this has been done, exiting the American zone will be easy; their offense will actually assist their defense in getting rid of the problems in the zone. And when the US gets in trouble in their own end, they have solid goaltending in Jonathan Quick to ensure that nothing gets past the paint.

Simply, back up the Canadians, scare them with speed, and try to stop their game from forming. Execute that well, and the weight of the nation will come crashing down upon these guys.

Canada’s game plan is the most elusive. They need their forwards to play like the superstars they are and not the players they’ve been so far. Maybe they just need fierce competition to find that next gear. If the Latvia game was the only warning so far, we would likely just be overreacting to one low scoring game. It’s not the only one. Norway should have been a runaway. It wasn’t. Finland should have been decisive. It wasn’t. They need to shake the cobwebs out and play. If they can do that, and find some last-minute chemistry, they can still win. At this point, though, is it logical to expect that chemistry if they haven’t been able to find it against lesser opponents?

I’m hoping the game will stay interesting to the end, but I expect that this will actually be over by the beginning of the third period. After a tight affair in the first, and a good period for the US in the second, Canada loses their composure in the third, and this ends in a very different outcome than Vancouver.

Dan’s Guaranteed Prediction™: 5-2 US

NOTE: I’ve made six predictions thus far – four in the quarters and two in the preliminaries. I’ve called the winner every time, and been remarkably close in the scores predicted as well.

News and Noteworthy

John Tavares is out for the remainder of the Olympics and likely the rest of the NHL season with a torn MCL and meniscus. This will hurt Team Canada as Tavares was a potent offensive force for them, always making things happen whenever he was on the ice. It might also hurt the Olympics themselves; the 2018 Games have not been approved by the NHL, and it’s possible that with all the injuries to big name players this year, the NHL might not want to return. After all, how do you think Charles Wang feels now that his marquee player will not return to the ice this year?