USA-Canada Preview: Get Jacked.

This Friday, the US men’s hockey team will face Canada in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament.  This is the game we’ve been waiting for, as Canada ended our Gold Medal hopes in the title game four years ago.  The two countries have a sibling rivalry, but they don’t feel much like family members now.  To put it nicely, Fuck Canada.  Let’s break down the game, starting with our evil northern neighbors.

            The Canadians come into this game looking far shakier than expected.  In the preliminary round, Canada did beat Austria 6-0 in their first game, but then they only beat Norway, probably the worst team in the tournament, 3-1.  The Maple Syrup Lovers then won a hard-fought 2-1 game in overtime against Finland and its netminder Tuukka Rask, probably the best goalie in the world.

But the game that is freshest in Canadians minds’ and will probably scare them the most was their 2-1 Quarterfinal win against Latvia.  Canada had a bye through the first playoff round and into the quarters, while Latvia had played a day earlier and beat the heavily favored Switzerland.  Latvia was the 11 seed after the prelims (out of 12 teams, and only Norway was worse), so nobody gave Latvia a chance to even keep the game close – myself included.  Well, Latvia did keep it close – or, more accurately, goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis kept it close.  He faced a ridiculous 57 shots (the average in an NHL game is around 30), and he stopped an even more insane 55.  Despite Gudlevskis singlehandedly keeping his team in the game, defenseman Shea Weber ultimately buried a slap shot on a power play with under five minutes remaining, and the Canadians held on for the nerve-racking win.

Even if you were to disregard the fact that Canada has won a few games in an underwhelming fashion over clearly superior teams, there are other reasons to worry.  Sidney Crosby, the world’s best player, has looked iffy at best.  He has registered only 0 goals, 2 assists, and 6 shots on goal in 4 games despite getting the second-most ice time among the team’s forwards.  To put that in perspective, a good guess before the tournament for Crosby’s stat line through four games against Norway, Austria, Finland, and Latvia would be about 2 goals, 4 assists, and 12-15 shots on goal.  Team Canada also selected Crosby’s linemate in Pittsburgh, Chris Kunitz, largely so that Crosby would have chemistry with his left wing.  Because Sid is simply so smart and quick, he is known as a difficult player to play with.  That’s what makes it all the most surprising that Crosby’s new right wing on Team Canada, Jeff Carter, is performing well while Kunitz isn’t.  Kunitz has a line of 0 goals, 0 assists, and 6 shots on goal to Carter’s 3-1-17.  Carter is performing mainly without Crosby’s or Kunitz’s help, as Crosby has assisted on just one of Carter’s three even-strength goals.  The best player in the world simply isn’t playing like it.

Team Canada has also received a whopping seven goals from its top two defensemen, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, who are playing out of their minds.  No other defenseman has scored, Carter has three goals, and then three other players have one.  The fact that just six players have scored in four games against inferior challengers is not the kind of scoring layout that we would expect from the deepest and most well-rounded team in the world.  Seven goals from two defensemen is impressive and speaks to their overall awesomeness, but it’s unlikely to hold up.

But, are Team Canada’s supporters worrying too much?  In the past few years, closer analysis of hockey statistics has shown that the biggest factor to winning for any hockey team comes down to shot differential.  Canada has more than doubled its opponents’ shot output, at 168-74.  That’s insane, and it would likely lead to bigger wins than we’ve seen.  While outshooting the other teams did lead to a 6-0 win over the lowly Austria, it did not translate to big wins over the other three teams.  For instance, Canada outshot Latvia 57-16 against a goalie that doesn’t even play in the NHL, but they simply ran into a hot goalie playing the game of his life.  Canada can be expected to score more than five goals in 120 minutes against teams like Norway and Latvia.

Canada’s doubters are also discounting a very basic facet of hockey: Team Canada’s defense and goaltending has been insane!  Carey Price has given up three goals on 51 shots, which is excellent, even if those three games were against Norway, Finland, and Latvia.  Backup Roberto Luongo went 23 for 23 against Austria, which is obviously not too shabby.  And when a team has surrendered three goals in four games, it’s evident that their defensemen deserve a ton of credit.  There is something to be said for Team Canada’s inability to finish when they have had quality scoring chances, which is definitely a huge aspect of hockey, but it’s usually a good sign when you outshoot the other team buy that much.  Even if the forwards don’t pick up the slack, Team Canada could ride its strong defense to a Gold.

But that is a perfect segue to the United States team, because the US is the best scoring team that Canada could face in this tournament.  Team USA has scored 20 goals, which is the best in the tournament.  Any line for the Americans can score, and they’ll give Canada’s defensemen and goalie everything they can handle.

Team USA’s scorers should be at full throttle during the game against Canada, as Dan Bylsma – who is coaching extremely well, in my opinion – decided to reunite the first line from Vancouver four years ago.  In the preliminary round, center Ryan Kesler and right wing Patrick Kane had been playing with Dustin Brown on the left, but the line wasn’t clicking as well as expected, particularly Kane.  Kane is the most electrifying and offensively gifted player in our country, but he is only mediocre defensively, and Bylsma had started out the tournament by matching him with great defensive forwards Kesler and Brown to offset his slight weakness.  Left Wing Zach Parise had been on the third line with C David Backes and RW Ryan Callahan to create a defensive super line.  But neither the first nor third line were working as well as we had hoped, and Bylsma luckily realized that before the quarterfinals.  While both are great defensively, Parise is a better scorer and had chemistry with Kesler and Kane from 2010, so the switch was only logical…  and it worked.  Parise scored his first goal of the tournament in a 5-2 win over the Czech Republic in the quarters, Kesler recorded two assists, and Kane recorded one of his own in addition to playing all around better hockey.  Brown scored with his new line, and his new linemate Backes scored once and assisted once.

Then, there’s the second line, comprised of Joe Pavelski and two Toronto Maple Leafs, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel.  Wow, is this line on fire.  Kessel has earned a whopping five goals, three assists, and the title of “Tournament MVP if it ended today.”  JVR (van Riemsdyk) netted his first goal Wednesday to go along with his four assists, which match Pavelski’s stats exactly.  This has been the best scoring line in the tournament, and they haven’t showed many signs of slowing down.  Compared to the rest of Team USA’s lines, they’re a little weak defensively, which means that Bylsma should and probably will use them primarily for faceoffs that take place in the offensive zone.  Given that JVR and Kessel play together on Toronto’s power play, their chemistry with the man advantage has already proven itself helpful in the Olympics.

The Americans’ fourth line of C Paul Stastny, RW T.J. “Soshie 2014” or “The Hero” Oshie, and Max Pacioretty has played well at times in the tournament, but they’re a little inconsistent.  The line accounted for two goals in the first game rout of Slovakia, but it has struggled defensively at other times.  Team USA will rely heavily upon their first three lines against Canada and then their opponent in either the Gold or Bronze Medal game, not very much with the fourth line or the 13th forward of Blake Wheeler.

Defensively, Bylsma has also been shortening his bench, which is both smart and necessary.  However, if there was one thing that I was going to nitpick about Bylsma’s coaching thus far, it would be how he’s been distributing minutes to his blueliners.  He correctly is relying primarily upon Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh as his top two, and you can expect the pair to play approximately 187 minutes against Canada on Friday.  Suter is used to playing tons of minutes for the Minnesota Wild, where he currently leads the league in minutes played.

But after the top two, it’s been a little questionable.  I, and many others who have followed this team and its players at a borderline-religious level, feel that the next two best guys are Paul Martin and Kevin Shattenkirk.  The final three guys in order would be Cam Fowler, Brooks Orpik, and John Carlson.  After Fowler, there seems to be a little bit of a drop off to Orpik, at least in my opinion, but Bylsma disagrees.  He might be too loyal to Orpik, who plays for him in Pittsburgh and is actually Martin’s partner on the blue line.  I understand him wanting to pair them together due to chemistry, but not at the expense of cutting into Shattenkirk’s minutes.  Orpik played over 18 minutes Wednesday, and Shattenkirk played just over 13.  That should probably change, and the top four of Suter, McDonagh, Martin, and Shattenkirk should be played more than the rest.  If Bylsma would like to put Martin with Orpik and Shattenkirk with Fowler for some shifts, that’s fine with me, but it can’t cut too heavily into Shattenkirk’s ice time.

Finally, we have Jonathan Quick, Team USA’s goalie.  Quick went Beast Mode in the 2012 Playoffs, leading the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup.  From then until a little over a month ago, he only resembled a league-average goalie.  Luckily, he picked it up around the start of the new year, and he’s continued his success in Sochi.  He has not played out of his mind, but there has been nothing to complain about with Quickie.  That being said, he’ll really make his Olympic legacy in the next two games.  Nobody will really remember the preliminary and quarterfinal rounds.

America is an underdog against Canada in the semifinal game, as Canada simply has a ton of firepower, and they’re hard to stop.  Team USA may have the advantage in goal with Quick over Carey Price, but Canada is undoubtedly better at both forward and defense.  Many have drawn comparisons between this game and the two times the teams faced off in 2010, in which Ryan Miller was the key.  Miller gave the United States a chance against Canada, and Quick may have to do that again.  Quick could be the deciding factor, but no hockey game has just one x-factor.  It will be key for one of Team USA’s four lines of forwards to go off against the Canadians in terms of scoring, and it will likely have to be the second line.  After all, it would be pretty cool to see James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel return to Toronto after taking away Canada’s gold medal hopes.  But the first line will also need to step up and really play like a first line, and it might be time for Patrick Kane to net his first goal of the tournament.  Finally, the Ryans on defense – Suter and McDonagh – will have to play like the top defensive pairing that they are.  Team USA will have to play above itself and win on matchups, which makes Bylsma’s coaching all the more important.

As for a prediction, I would have entirely expected myself to pick Canada in this game before the tournament happened.  But now, it’s clear that Team USA’s biggest advantage over Canada, even more than the goaltenders, is chemistry.  Chemistry is overrated in sports, but probably not in a six-game tournament.  Team USA is playing more like a team for which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, while Canada has struggled to do the same.  Maybe I’m biased (actually, yes, I am), but I’ll pick the Americans in a 3-2 thriller.  Give me one goal from Kaner, one from JVR on the power play with an assist from Kessel, and a third from Parise.  And if the game goes to a shootout, well, we have T.J. Oshie, so good luck Canada.  And Fuck Justin Bieber.

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