Saturday, February 27, 2010

Well That Escalated Quickly

Now, I think you all know I had high hopes for the United States to beat Finland yesterday and advance to the Olympic Gold Medal game. Well, uh, I didn't see this coming. And I don't think anyone else did either, particularly considering Finland hadn't given up four goals yet in the entire tournament.

The United States scored six times in the first 12:46 of the game, an almost ludicrous pace regardless of whether you're playing against NHLers or a pee wee team. It was the largest single period output for the U.S. since 1964, and the first four tallies in the blitz came against Miikka Kiprusoff, who, while his defense clearly wasn't up to par, is generally considered one of the best goaltenders in the world. Perhaps Kipper was victim to a little bit of hubris considering his pre-Olympics comments. Either way, the United States was able to pour it on, with one tweeter noting that in the first period the Americans had a higher shooting percentage than the New York Knicks.

After a wild day of semifinal games, a team which many didn't expect to medal when the roster was announced on January first, now will have a shot at Gold for the first time since 2002, when the Americans lost it on their home soil for the first time in 70 years. The United States fell that day in Salt Lake City to the Canadians, who were making their own erstwhile history that day, winning gold 50 years to the day of their last Olympic triumph, a remarkable drought for the first nation of hockey. Well, after juuuust squeaking by the Slovakians last night, we're going to see our old friends one more time Sunday at 3 for top honors.

I, as I have noted on more than one occasion here, am not happy about this.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Canada. In fact were it not that they were facing the United States, I would probably be pulling for them. My concern lies in that, as I told a friend earlier this week, it's hard to get shot twice and survive. The Americans already managed to beat the Canadians once on their home soil in one of the biggest wins in the history of U.S.A. Hockey, but doing it twice? In a week?

That seems like an awfully tall order. Now, I have also been saying that, logically, as someone who has watched nearly every game, I have been somewhat unimpressed by the Canadians so far. Yes, at an abstract point of view they're doing just fine, but for my money, their romp over the Russians was the only game they've played where they completely dominated the play as they should, with the exception of their loss to the U.S. In the round robin Canada took a while before it got moving against Norway and was sent to a shootout against Switzerland, two teams it should have rolled over with ease. A loss to the U.S., a dominant victory over Russia and survival against the Cinderella Slovaks is what has defined the rest of their tournament. By contrast, the United States hasn't yet so much as trailed in any game this tournament. To put that in perspective, the 1980 Gold Medal U.S. squad had to come from behind each time they took the ice.

It may seem as though I'm trying to find some rational reason to believe the Americans will win the day on Sunday, and that may indeed be the case, but I would expect this to be a fairly close game throughout, with the U.S. having a very good chance at returning the favor of Salt Lake City. But really, in total, I just can't see it. The U.S. is a strong, tenacious, gritty team, but the Canadians are simply overloaded with world-class talent in every facet. I had gotten the feeling earlier this tournament that Canada might be struggling under the unbearable pressure of winning the only gold that matters, but if they've managed to get this far, can the pressure really break them?

I'd be surprised. Two wins in Canada might be too tough a task.

Of course, if you're looking for inspiration, you can look back to the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, which I'm sure you all remember. In that tournament, the U.S. stunned Canada with a win in the preliminary rounds only to be matched up again with their neighbors in the final. That final was a three-game series, in which the Canadians took the opener in Philadelphia, but the United States shocked the northerners with not one, but two wins in Montreal to take the title. In that last game, the U.S. trailed late in the third before scoring four times in the final 3:18 of regulation, with Tony Amonte netting the game-winner, to close out the Canadians. You can see this all unfold above as guided by the smooth dulcet tones of Canadian hockey announcer Bob Cole, a man whose guiding thought process while announcing seems to be, "What? Where Am I?"

Are we likely to see an upset like that again on Sunday? Well, no, probably not. But it certainly is possible, and the U.S. has already managed to far exceed expectations so far. If the Americans continue playing well with house money, they may hit the jackpot yet and add another chapter to what is becoming a more and more storied rivalry.

If they don't come through, there are worse things than seeing the Canadians triumph in the sport that matters most to them.

At the very least, we know it'll be an interesting celebration.

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