Canada pumped for NHL-style Olympic semifinal against U.S. 0
The Bolshoy Ice Dome sits little more than a Shea Weber slap shot away from the coast of the Black Sea here in this tropical corner of Russia.
It is a world away from life in the NHL, obviously, and so far for the defending Olympic champion Canadians, the hockey has been a foreign beast as well.
But now that they have reached the semi-final stage and Friday's delicious rematch of the Vancouver 2010 gold-medal game versus the U.S., might they have found a hockey home away from home?
"I know a lot of people are worried about us not scoring and stuff like that," superstar Canadian defenceman Drew Doughty said after a brisk practice here Friday afternoon. "But against a North American team, I think this is where we really pick it up and show how we can score. Guys are going to step up and put pucks in the net. We're hungry."
"We match up really well against each other. It's going to be the best game of the tournament."
The Canadians are not alone in the hunger Games here, either. The defeat in Vancouver may have been four years ago, but the sting is still fresh for Team USA. While Babcock's squad has lost marks for artistic impression, Dan Bylsma's U.S. side has blitzed through the preliminary round and quarterfinal as the most impressive team in the tourney.
"The 2010 Games and the gold-medal game has not been very far from a lot of these guy's memories," Bylsma said on Thursday. "I think this group has wanted this game and wanted this rematch and they're ready for it."
For Canada, then, you have to believe, there is no other alternative than to step it up against the Americans, despite he protestations of players and coaches on Thursday that everything is fine.
And maybe there's something to that mindset beyond the obvious motivational benefits of repeating it daily.
There have been impressive aspects in all four wins -- especially the stout defensive efforts that have seen them surrender just three goals so far -- though none of those victories have moved the 'wow' meter.
There are clearly two ways to grade Canada's 2-1 win over Latvia in Wednesday's quarterfinal. Scoring just twice on 57 shots is deplorable for a team so deep in firepower, but on the other hand, it was a game the Canadians dominated.
"We're excited to play," Babcock said. "Our group's real confident, we like what we've done, we like how our team is.
"We think we're set up good right now and that to me is the most important thing."
If you take a closer look at their respective opponents on their road to the semis, the contrast is stark. Virtually every shift of every game, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and the rest of the yet-to-score forwards have faced stifling defensive teams in the true Euro style.
The Americans, meanwhile, have been able to use their skating and skill in most of their contests, a stretch that have been more wide open than the Canadians.
Put it this way -- there won't be five U.S. players standing in front of their own net all night to strangle the Canadians as there were in games against Norway and Finland.
Still, with Doughty the leading goal getter with four -- and seven of the team's 13 goals coming from the blueline -- the one-dimensional attack might not cut it against the tournament's leading scorer, Phil Kessel, and the rest of the U.S. squad.
"I think we're going to score," Babcock said. "I think we've won every game we've played and that's going to be the goal again tomorrow. You can talk scoring chances till you're blue in the face. Who cares? The score is on the board so we've just got to find a way to keep doing what we're doing."
In reality, it's likely going to take a little more than that against a U.S. squad motivated to avenge the overtime loss of 2010 and a group that has been the most impressive here yet.
That said, the Canadians remain supremely confident in both their game and their shot against their most relevant contemporary rival given the recent struggles of the Russians.
"I think both teams are really evenly matched -- I don't know who I would give the upper hand to at this point," Doughty said. "But I'm obviously more confident in my team than theirs. I'm just really looking forward to it.
"I think a lot of people are counting us out, too, which we're really going to thrive under. If anyone wants to count us out, we're going to use that as motivation."
There will be Patrick Kane taking on Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp in a rivalry that will get plenty of play in the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room when the NHL season resumes.
Or from the Los Angeles Kings, the Drew Doughty-Jeff Carter Canadian combo bringing it against U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick and forward Dustin Brown.
The Canada-U.S. rivalry may be among the best in the world in men's hockey these days -- and it's one that carries over when foes become teammates again next week.
"We want those bragging rights for the rest of the season, for the rest of your life, really," said Kings defenceman Drew Doughty. "I'm close with both of those guys, Quickie and Brownie.
"It's going to be fun tomorrow, but I want to beat them so badly."
Kane has been taking some heat from his Hawks teammates for comments he made suggesting Leafs forward Phil Kessel was the best forward he has ever played with. For the most part, though, it's all jocular stuff from NHLers who are relishing the depth of the Canada-U.S. rivalry.
"I don't think either of us doubted it at all that at some point we'd be facing off, whether it's the semifinal or final," Toews said of pre-tourney talk he had with Kane. "To win a gold medal, I think we felt like it's pretty much necessary to go through the U.S. at some point.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Mike Babcock’s ears are burning.
Team Canada’s coach knows he’s being second-guessed by every armchair bench boss in Canada. And a common theme he is hearing is to get more ice time for some of the biggest guns.
“What we are going to do is watch the game and adjust accordingly. Now everybody believes -- or that’s what I hear -- that if this guy played a few more minutes he might play better and if that guy played a few more minutes, he might play better.
“I don’t know -- this is my second Olympics -- I think things are going just fine.”
The notable lineup change for Friday’s semi-final will see Matt Duchene draw in to centre Patrick Sharp and Rick Nash. Duchene is replacing John Tavares, who suffered a tournament and season-ending injury in Wednesday’s quarter-final win over Latvia.
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