Defense to Play Major Role for USA in Olympic Semifinal Against Finland


Feb 26, 2010

Defense to Play Major Role for USA in Olympic Semifinal Against Finland Thirty years and two days after it beat Finland for its most recent gold medal at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, the U.S. looks to keep another surprising run going as it faces the Finns in the semifinals.

The winner of Friday’s Finland-USA tilt will take on the winner of Canada-Slovakia for the gold medal on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET. Here’s a look at how the last two silver-medal teams (Finland in 2006 and USA in 2002) match up.

USA vs. Finland, 3 p.m. ET (NBC)

USA, the only undefeated team left in this tournament, has relied on a solid blue line presence in its offensive attack — and, of course, the goaltending of Ryan Miller — to get to the semifinals.

After being plagued early on in the tournament by too many odd-man rushes against, resulting from the defensemen pitching in on offense without leaving a man back, USA has tightened up its game defensively while still allowing the defense to play a major role offensively. In fact, a defenseman leads Team USA in every offensive category, and that threat has also helped free up the forwards for more chances as well.

Brian Rafalski
(four goals, two assists) and Ryan Suter (four assists) have both played major roles in activating the defense into the offensive attack. Defensively, the American blue line has also been stellar, blocking shot after shot and limiting the offensive chances for opponents.

But the Americans wouldn’t still be playing if not for the goaltending of Ryan Miller, who is 4-0-0 with a 1.25 GAA and .944 save percentage.

Miller backstopped the USA to its huge upset of Canada, making 42 saves and frustrating the potent Canadian offense. But Miller has also been solid in games where he has seen less action, a time when some goalies find it hard to maintain their focus. This was on display against Switzerland, when he made some key saves in the opening period and shut out the Swiss with 19 saves in the Americans' 2-0 win.

If there is one thing the U.S. needs more of, it is for offensive threats like Patrick Kane (one goal, one assist) and Phil Kessel (one goal) to step it up and light the lamp more. Zach Parise (two goals, three assists) has been getting better each game and broke out with two goals in the 2-0 win over Switzerland, but Kessel and Kane — both bona fide snipers — need to do their jobs, too.

Finland’s only blemish in this Olympic tournament was a 3-0 loss to its bitter rival Sweden, to whom they also lost in the 2006 gold medal game. Other than that game, the Finns have used a balanced attack, and like the United States, they have been the beneficiaries of stellar goaltending from Miikka Kiprusoff (3-1-0, 1.33 GAA, .946 save percentage). Kiprusoff has two shutouts thus far, including a 31-save performance in a 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, to advance to this semifinal game.

Finland is led by Teemu Selanne (two assists), who registered his 37th career Olympic point with an assist on Friday against Germany. He is now the all-time men's Olympic hockey points leader. But this veteran squad has depth up front, and besides Kiprusoff, its best players have been forwards Niklas Hagman (three goals, two assists) — who leads the team with five points — and Mikko Koivu, who leads the team in assists with four.

The blue line is deep as well, featuring Joni Pitkanen (one goal, one assist) and Kimmo Timonen, who leads all Finnish defensemen with two lamplighters. But while this blue line can chip in offensively, it is prone to turnovers and is careless in its own end at times, making Kiprusoff’s play all the more crucial.

Prediction: USA 2-1 in overtime

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