Canada and U.S.A. will play each other in the Olympic men's hockey semi-finals on Friday, but their journeys could not have been more different, and the favorite might surprise you.
Canada was the unquestioned favorite to take home gold at the start of the tournament in Sochi. Canada's roster of forwards is ludicrous, a super team a kid would assemble in a video game, and a defense that could shutdown any oncoming attack. The team struggled to find its way during the round robin games, but surely, many expected, things would turn around against a lowly Latvian team. Surely Canada's offense, full of some of the National Hockey League's best, could put a few pucks past Latvia's backup goalie, who normally plays in the American Hockey League, the NHL's little brother.
That's not what happened. Canada beat Latvia 2-to-1, sure, but it was a hard-fought victory that kept an entire two countries on the edge until the final minutes. Of course, that's not how it looks on the stat sheet. Canada outshot Latvia 57-to-6, but it seemed like trouble was looming, plotting, waiting for the right time to strike every time Latvia was near the net. This game took off several years off my life.
Latvian goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis can raise his head high after playing like a man possessed against an offense that literally nearly killed him. Partway through the third period, after facing more than 50 of Canada's 57 shots, Latvia's medical staff tended to Gudlevskis, who was suffering from physical exhaustion, or dehydration, or something. He hurt, which is what matters, and what the Olympics are all about. "I tried to leave all my strength (out there)," he told the CBC's Elliotte Friedman. Canadaian goaltender Carey Price called it the best performance he's ever seen.
But the game was not without controversy. It was tied through two periods, and the tension going into the third could be felt from Sochi to Ottawa. The Canadian offense started playing with a ferocity that was missing previously; pucks flied at the net. Forwards were skating circles around the defense, the puck was moving with urgency, and the inevitable was, well, inevitable. But Gudlevskis stopped every damn shot. That is, until a Patrick Sharp shot spread him like a starfish, and the puck started to trickle past him. There was a scrum at the net and what seemed like every player on the ice crowded the crease. Surely the puck went in. I screamed, jumped from my seat, and let relief wash over me. The feeling did not last long. Defenseman Kristaps Sotnieks swiped the puck right before it crossed the goal line. Unlike football's rules, in hockey, the entire puck must cross the line to score a goal. The refs convened and ruled Canada had not scored. There should have been a penalty, or a penalty shot, but Latvia got away
with murder unscathed.
Canada's defense eventually ended it, again. The offense had plenty of chances — any of the three powerplays could have done the trick. But Shea Weber scored the game-winning goal for Canada with just less than seven minutes left. Weber has one of the hardest slap shots in the NHL, and earlier in the game a Latvian player learned that the hard way. A Latvian blocked a Weber shot from the blue line with his hip, and you could immediately tell he was injured. Play continued while he stayed on the ice, down, but not out, limping through obvious excruciating pain. He could barely skate. Eventually, a nearly identical Weber shot found a clear path to the net. I jumped again, screamed again, and danced around my living room like a fool.
A win over Latvia nearly brought Canada to ruin. This is why Olympic hockey is so much fun.
At the same time, Team U.S.A. was carving mincemeat out of a respectable squad from the Czech Republic, beating them 5-to-1 and setting up a showdown with Canada on Friday, with the gold medal on the line. But through five games of Olympics hockey, I can't help but concede that the U.S.A. is the clear favorite to win.
The major difference between the two teams is that the U.S.A. scores at will, and Canada does not. It's clear to anyone with working eyeballs. "The team we're playing (next) seems to score easy," Canada's head coach Mike Babcock said at the post-game press conference. "We don't score easy." U.S.A. leads all Olympic men's teams with 20 goals so far. Canada has 13 goals through the same amount of play.
Wednesday's U.S.A. performance was like a preemptive threat, a tasting menu for what Canada faces. U.S.A. scored five times on an NHL-level goalie. (Not a great one, but still, after today the distinction holds some water.) David Backes converted a lucky bounce off the boards and put the puck through an impossibly small window for U.S.A.'s third goal. Phil Kessel scored his zillionth goal of the tournament, if my rough math is correct. James Van Riemsdyk, Zach Parise, Dustin Brown all added goals, too, and are the people Team U.S.A. executives expected to contribute.
Team U.S.A. is playing its best hockey, scoring goals with relative ease, and shutting down teams defensively. Jonathan Quick looks unstoppable. People are making these GIFs about Phil Kessel. Defending champion Canada, on the other hand, can barely compete with Latvia, a country that has never finished in the top eight at the Olympics. The odds of a Canadian victory on Friday seem slim, in these conditions. Canada's pre-tournament arrogance is coming back to haunt them. Maybe Canada can get through this American squad, or maybe they'll need a miracle for it to happen.