Olympics Preview – USA vs Canada: More than Pride On the Line

On Sunday the United States will play Canada in a game that will have a lot at stake for the two nations. Despite the game not being available in HD (because NBC sucks), the impact of the game on the Olympic tournament could be huge.

Obviously, the most pressure of these Olympic games, for any country in any sport, is on the men’s hockey team for Canada. A team full of all stars playing the host country’s national pastime is good enough on paper to win the gold medal, but will have millions of people watching every breath they take for two weeks (where’s Sting when you need him?).

Even with the geographic rivalry between the two nations, and the reality that there are many guys on both roster that will be hitting NHL teammates on Sunday, the game carries added importance because of how the Olympic tournament is set up.

There are three groups into which the 12 teams were placed, and the tournament begins with a round-robin within those groups to determine seeding for the playoffs. How points are awarded during the round-robin portion of the tournament is different than in the NHL as well. For a regulation win,  team gets three points, an overtime win is worth two, an overtime loss is worth one, and a regulation loss is worth zero.

Entering the weekend, the United States is tied with the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden for the top in points after the field has played two games with the maximum six points. Canada is alone with five points, one ahead of the Russian Federation with four. Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky’s Slovak team has two points, and Switzerland has one. Norway, Latvia, Belarus and Germany all have yet to score a point in the tournament.

The United States and Canada, though, are in the same group of four with Switzerland and Norway. Because Canada received only two points for their shootout win against Switzerland, they trail the United States in the group as well as overall in the tournament.

On Saturday, the bottom feeding teams will all play their third game of the round-robin portion of the tournament. Sunday will determine the top of the playoff seeding for the playoffs, which awards a first round bye to the top four teams based on points.

Before the US plays Canada, Russia will play the Czech Republic in what could be a spirited, up-and-down game with a lot of scoring and even more hitting. With Russia trailing the Czech Republic in their group by two points, even an overtime loss will guarantee the Czechs of a victory in that group and a bye in the first round of the playoffs with seven points. A regulation win for Russia would tie those two teams with six points, and open the door for the US to get an even higher seed.

Because the US leads Canada by one point entering Sunday’s game, an overtime loss to Canada would give Canada the overall win in the group (by virtue of defeating the US) but would give both teams seven points, likely getting both a bye in the playoffs.

After the US-Canada game on Sunday the other two six-point teams, Finland and Sweden, will play to determine their group’s winner.

After watching the last few days of Olympic hockey, it has become clear that there are two players on the United States team who are the keys to an upset of Canada on Sunday: David Backes of the Blues and the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane.

Backes has been the only skater for the United States who has clearly made a visual impact to the viewing audience in both of the USA’s games. He’s been the most consistent physical force on the ice for the United States, “politely” coming to the defense of teammates after questionable hits and also cleaning up the trash in corners when the puck needs to move.

He has also been a fantastic contributor on the offensive end of the ice. In the first game, he sparked the offense by taking a rebound from Ryan Miller coast-to-coast and scoring a pretty goal despite cotton hanging from his bloody nose.

On Thursday, Switzerland gave Canada all it could handle by playing a physical game. The Swiss played the United States the exact same way, and to the credit of the Americans, it didn’t impact their style of play as much as it appeared to impact what Canada was trying to do.

A big part of the US being able to stay with its plan of attack was Backes taking care of the physical part of the game by forcing Switzerland, and then Norway, to deal with him on the ice.

The other player who will need to play well if the United States has any chance to upset Canada is Kane.

In the first game of the tournament, Kane appeared to be tentative. The chemistry between he and Zach Parise, something Team USA had sold fans as “lightning in a bottle,” was nothing but thunder in the first game.

Thursday that changed.

Parise connected with a couple of one-timers and Kane attacked with the puck with more confidence, opening the ice for the other playmakers on the United States’ roster to move around Kane.

As Blackhawks fans have seen all year, Kane is an absolute magician with the puck. Because of his size, he has, at times, disappeared on the ice (see after he got hit in Detroit just before the Winter Classic last year). This year, though, Kane has been a stronger, more confident player who is better with the puck in traffic and creates space to score for himself.

If the United States hopes to beat Canada, it’ll have to score.

Norway allowed 14 goals in the two games against the United States and Canada, both games showing that these two teams have snipers all over the ice.

Switzerland, on the other hand, played much tighter defense against both the US and Canada. The coaching points for both teams from their respective games against Switzerland were likely very simple: spread the ice, get into space, and get the puck on net.

Canada is loaded with great scorers who can create their own shots. The United States has fantastic scorers as well, but will have to rely on puck movement in the offensive zone to get quality looks at the net.

Kane is the best passer, especially through traffic, on the USA’s roster. He’ll need to show up and create special opportunities for players like Parise and Bobby Ryan if the Americans have a chance to beat Canada.

For the USA, the game plan should be very similar to what Switzerland did on Thursday.

But for that plan to be effective, and for the US to win its group in the Olympic tournament by upsetting the host nation on Sunday, Backes and Kane will need to play their best.

From the Canadian perspective, the last game saw coach Mike Babcock playing with his lines throughout the game. In fact, he did not play Blackhawks’ defenseman Brent Seabrook more than one shift in the third period and Jarome Iginla, who had a hat trick in the first game of the tournament, did not step on the ice in the overtime.

Interestingly, one player that has moved around in different roles on different lines has been Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews. He has been effective in the faceoff circle, but was seen playing wing on the top line next to Sidney Crosby for a big portion of the Switzerland game. Toews had an assist in 13:13 on the ice in that game, and also shot second in the shootout, and is +2 for the tournament.

Canada will have to be more consistent with the puck against the United States than they were against Switzerland, who took advantage of turnovers to force the overtime period and were conservative enough to push the game to the shootout.

Because of the NHL influence on both the US and Canada, and the reality that there will be teammates playing against each other, matchups will be intriguing and how teammates handle each other’s tendencies will play a large roll in the outcome of the game.

If Babcock plays Duncan Keith while Kane is on the ice, he won’t have to worry about needing much of a scouting report. Similarly, if Dan Boyle of the San Jose Sharks matches up with teammate Joe Pavelski, that creates a solid matchup for the Canadians as well. The United States could play Brooks Orpik against his Pittsburgh teammate, Sidney Crosby, and have a solid matchup there as well.

The familiarity between the rosters will create a fun game to watch, but the impact the game will have on the Olympic tournament will be equally important.

The USA-Canada game is scheduled to begin at 6:45 in Chicago, and will air on MSNBC.

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