USA-Canada Olympic Hockey Preview: Confident U.S. Men Will Overcome Rival

Kessel, Backes, SuterThe Olympic hockey rematch everyone wanted is almost here.

The United States and Canada will play Friday, with a berth in the gold medal game at stake.

Based on the two teams’ performance through the quarterfinals, the Americans should enter this game as the favorites despite the fact the Canadians are the defending Olympic gold medalists.

Team USA has dominated just about everyone in Sochi, scoring a tournament-leading 19 goals with an average margin of victory of 3.25 goals. Unlike past U.S. teams, this squad has just as much talent, speed and experience as the other top contenders. The Americans don’t need a hot goaltender to carry them to a gold medal, and that has been evident in this tournament. This should give them a ton of confidence heading into the semifinals.

Check out our in-depth preview below.

Key Skaters

Canada — Sidney Crosby

The captain struggled again Wednesday when Canada barely defeated Latvia with a go-ahead goal in the third period. Crosby has zero goals and two assists through four games, and he has failed to form any consistent chemistry with his linemates. Expect the U.S. to be physical with Crosby and take away his time and space once he enters the attacking zone. Despite his lack of production, Crosby still is the most talented scorer in the world and capable of breaking out at any moment.

United States — David Backes

Backes was the Americans’ best player in Wednesday’s 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic. The veteran center scored a goal, picked up an assist and tallied three shots. The St. Louis Blues star’s hard work in the dirty areas and in front of the net helped create a lot of scoring chances in the attacking zone, and his elite defensive skills and faceoff ability could earn him the assignment of shutting down Crosby.

Top Storyline — Should Team USA Play More Defensive Against Canada?

The U.S. has played a fast-paced, wide-open style of hockey through four games. But unlike Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Canada is capable of scoring goals from all four lines, and its blue line has tallied seven of the team’s 13 goals.

The Americans should play a more defensive game against the Canadians because trading chances with a team that has a fourth line of Patrice Bergeron, Jamie Benn and Matt Duchene isn’t smart. Team USA has two shut-down pairings (Ryan McDonagh-Ryan Suter, Paul Martin-Brooks Orpik) capable of defending the Crosby line and the Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry combo.

Latvia proved that if you block shots, don’t commit costly turnovers and play physical, Canada is beatable. Canadian coach Mike Babcock hasn’t even figured out his lines yet.

Goaltender Matchup

Carey Price faced just 14 shots against Latvia and has seen 49 in the tournament. He has made clutch saves when needed (0.99 goals against average, .944 save percentage), but Price will be much busier against an American squad that’s averaging 30 shots per game.

Jonathan Quick has been solid for the Americans with a .931 save percentage and a 1.62 GAA. The former Stanley Cup champion has shined under pressure and instills a ton of confidence in his teammates, whereas Canada has never seen Price play on a major stage. Price had no previous Olympic experience before Sochi and has never competed beyond Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Prediction

No team has won back-to-back gold medals since the NHL started sending its players to the Olympics in 1998, and Canada hasn’t won an Olympic title outside of North America in over five decades.

The U.S. needs to play a physical game and stay out of the penalty box to beat Canada. If Quick plays well and prevents Canada from taking an early lead, Team USA will win. Falling behind 2-0 in the 2010 gold medal game in Vancouver was almost too much for the Americans to overcome.

Pick: USA wins 3-1 with an empty-net goal to clinch a spot in Sunday’s final.

Photo via Twitter.com/MapleLeafs

Click here for a preview of the Sweden-Finland semifinal