VANCOUVER – The gold medals are in the building and the Closing Ceremonies are only a few hours away, but Team Canada and Team USA are ready to duke it out for the final medal of the 2010 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament.
As in 2002 in Salt Lake, the hockey tournament has featured Canada-U.S. finals for both the men and women. So far, Canada has won three gold medals and will be looking for a clean sweep this afternoon at Canada Hockey Place.
Canada was probably the favourite at the 10:00 mark of the third period two nights ago, but the team’s shaky finish in narrowly beating Slovakia, 3-2, caused a slight tremor of anxiety. Had Canada won the game 3-0, as it looked poised to do, one could say this was a solid if unspectacular win over a defensive-minded, skilled team. Unfortunately, Roberto Luongo slipped enough to allow the Slovaks to make a game of it, although he made a great save in the dying seconds to preserve the win.
The Americans, on the other hand, got to the finals with one of the most lop-sided semi-finals games ever played, pouring in six goals in the first period en route to an easy 6-1 win over Finland. Indeed, the Americans have a perfect 5-0 record so far, including an earlier 5-3 win over Canada during the preliminary round.
That win was marked by two significant factors. On the Canadian side, it was a terrible game for goalie Martin Brodeur, so much so that Roberto Luongo has played every minute since. For the Americans, it was a win which gave the team huge confidence that it could play with the best. The psychological fallout from that game will be huge for one team today. Canada will learn and play a better game; the Americans will do what they know they have done before.
The story lines for this game are many. Consider first the historic aspect. Canada beat the U.S. in 1920 and 1924 en route to gold and also beat the team more recently in 2002 in Salt Lake City. In all, Canada holds a 10-3-3 advantage over the Americans in Olympic competition.
The programs. Canada has been a dominant force in the first decade of the 21st century, but the Americans have made significant inroads, winning two World U20 Championship gold medals and becoming a power in the U18 event as well. They haven’t fared as well in the World Championships, but they have been consistent medal threats moreso than also-rans, a clear sign they are adding depth to their program bit by bit.
Nothing matters so much, however, as what is happening here in Vancouver. For Canada, the story has been an impressive and well-rounded attack. Jarome Iginla leads all players with five goals and Canada leads the tournament with 32 goals in six games. The defence is contributing to the attack as well, and 20-year-old Drew Doughty has emerged as the team’s best blueliner. Canada has often looked shaky in the opening minutes of games thanks to the massive pressure the players face every time they breath, eat a bowl of cereal, or play 60 minutes of hockey.
For the Americans, the story starts in the blue ice, where goalie Ryan Miller has been a pillar of strength. He has been excellent when needed, but more than that he hasn’t surrendered a bad goal or one that has deflated his team. General manager Brian Burke has done a masterful job not only selecting a good blend of skill and grit but of keeping the team out of the spotlight.
Now that the spotlight is on, the big question will be whether the young Americans can maintain their composure at a time when they’ll be facing more pressure than any other time in their lives. It’s one thing to play hockey in anonymity, but now the Americans will face the same scrutiny that Canada has been subject to for the last three months. Can they hold it together? Being in the gold-medal game might be a dream come true, but it’s also a supremely tough gig.
Defenceman Brian Rafalski leads the Olympics with eight points, but more than him alone it’s the speed of the U.S. that is most impressive. The Canadians have speed as well and can pass and shoot at full speed, as they demonstrated time and again against the Russians in the 7-3 quarter-finals victory.
Although Canada has played one more game, it’s inconceivable that fatigue would be a factor on this day. So what will decide gold? Of course, many factors, but if you had to choose just one word, that word would be goaltending.