When this 2010 Men?s Olympic Hockey tournament started, not many had the USA still playing Sunday in the gold-medal game (3 p.m. ET, NBC), but almost everyone expected Canada to be playing for a chance to be the first home team since the 1980 Miracle On Ice USA team to win on home soil in Vancouver.
The 1960 USA squad is the only other team accomplish the feat, winning gold in Squaw Valley. But here we are with a rematch of the 2002 gold medal match that Canada won 5-2 on US soil at Salt Lake City. USA has a chance to avenge that loss and Canada has a chance to do the same for their 5-3 loss to the United States just a week ago.
With Canada?s star-studded lineup of future Hall of Famers and ten NHL captains, they were the early gold medal favorites based on skill and leadership. They also had arguably the current three best goalies in the world in Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury.
However, things don?t always go as planned in sports and after two straight shaky outings between the pipes (the last being the 5-3 loss to USA), Brodeur was pulled in favor of Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks goalie has made the fans he plays for and a whole nation of hockey-crazed fans in Canada happy going 3-0-0 with a 1.75 GAA and .919 save percentage.
With their goaltending back in order, the Canadians have not lost since the change and the USA game as chemistry finally formed to combine with the loads of talent and Canada is right where they were supposed to be, playing for gold.
Up front the Canadians have been led by in scoring by Dany Heatley (4 goals, 3 assists) and Jonathan Toews (7 assists) who both lead the team in points with seven. Toews leads the entire tournament in assists. Jarome Iginla leads the team and tournament in goals with five.
Canada has also been getting big contributions from Ryan Getzlaf (3 goals, 3 assists), and Brendan Morrow (2 goals, 1 assist) up front as well. Getzlaf had a goal and an assist in the 3-2 semifinal win over Slovakia and Morrow scored the second goal in the win. Morrow has been very versatile for head coach Mike Babcock, who has used him on the power play, shorthanded and even strength.
On the blue line, Canada has been led by Dan Boyle (1 goal, 5 assists) and Shea Weber (2 goals, 4 assists) who have six point each and have helped form a dangerous transition game and lethal power play for Canada. Chris Pronger (5 assists) has also been coming on strong with two helpers in the semifinal.
But while Canada has had most of the expected players step up, specifically Sidney Crosby (3 goals, 3 assists), who has all the spotlight on him, one key player has continued to struggle in the spotlight and despite his abundance of skill, has failed to come through in the clutch situations. Just as he has struggled in the playoffs, former Bruin and current San Jose Shark Joe Thornton has been invisible as the games get bigger and with only two points, Canada needs Jumbo Joe to step up.
This could be the perfect opportunity for him to shed the ?choker? image and come up huge in a pressure-packed game. Look for Thornton to be an X-factor one way or another. Obviously the play of Roberto Luongo, who did look shaky in the third period Friday, will be the main x-factor but a talent like Thornton finding his game could be the difference between winning and losing.
When USA GM Brian Burke assembled this squad, many questioned his selections and obvious youth movement with the average age being 26.5, but hey the last US team to win gold had an average age of 21 and sometimes the innocence and hunger that comes with youth can be a good thing. That appears to have been the case with this 2010 USA team who took another major step towards gold by embarrassing the oldest and most experienced team in the tournament Finland, 6-1.
“You know we were the youngest team with an average age of 21 and then you look at this team, they?re older but they were maybe young enough to just go out, have fun and play their game, blocking out the pressure of the tournament,” captain of the 1980 Miracle team Mike Eruzione told the Inside Hockey Radio Show Saturday.
This USA squad doesn?t seem to know what pressure is! In their first real test of the tournament, they withstood an onslaught of shots, mainly thanks to the amazing goaltending of Ryan Miller (42 saves) and beat Canada 5-3. The biggest sign that this team wouldn?t be rattled was the final minutes when Canada came back and made it a one-goal game. The US wasn?t scared and didn?t panic, getting a great empty-net goal from Ryan Kesler.
They have been calmer every game and dictated the game with their blazing speed and a defense that has learned when to pitch into the offense or stay back. USA is the only undefeated team left in the tournament and that has been because of their composure and ability to remain within their game plan.
That defense has been led by Brian Rafalski (4 goals, 4 assists) who leads the tournament with eight points and seems to always make seamless outlet passes from the defensive zone. Ryan Suter (4 assists) has been a minute eater on the blue line at 105:31 thus far and Erik Johnson (1 goal) and Tim Gleason have been shot-block masters, not allowing many shots to get through to the sensational Miller.
Miller (5-0-0, 1.04 GAA, .953 save percentage) has been the best player in this tournament. Regardless of the outcome of this gold-medal game, he will finish with the best GAA and save percentage. Miller has been amazing and probably most impressive has not been his 42 save performance against Canada but his ability to remain focused when his team has a game well in control as they did on Friday. Miller?s focus prevents the opponent from gaining any momentum as he squashes any chance they get.
The forward position is probably where the USA needs to be at its strongest and utilize it?s strength. Zach Parise (3 goals, 4 assists), had a goal and an assist Friday and has been the best USA forward but they have been the beneficiaries of plenty of unsung heroes like Kesler who may have only one goal but leads the tournament in face-off percentage winning 76 percent of his draws. Ryan Malone (3 goals; 2 assists) has also been critical to the USA attack, using his 6?4? 224 pound frame to be a major presence in front of the opposing goalies.
Besides Miller, the X-factors for the US may well be three forwards that until Friday have not taken advantage of their skill and speed. Phil Kessel (1 goal, 1 assist), Patrick Kane (3 goals) and Paul Stastny (1 goal, 2 assists) need to be huge for USA and show why they are some of the most talented in the world. Kessel did a great job creating the first USA goal with his speed and forcing Miikka Kiprusoff to come out and play the puck, subsequently making an errant clear to Malone who buried it into the vacant net behind Kiprusoff. USA will need more of that on Sunday.
They will also need Kane to be the sniper he was Friday against what promises to be a more focused goalie in Luongo and Stastny to be the playmaker he was in the semifinal. Those two points Friday were Stastny?s first of the tournament. He needs to finish off strong. This trio was critical to the 6-1 win Friday and they will be critical to the success of their team Sunday.
Another key element to keep an eye on will be how USA handles trailing if they fall behind. They have not trailed the entire tournament. If their composure and calmness so far is there, that shouldn?t be a problem.
Prediction: USA 4, Canada 2