Canada and the U.S. renew what American coach Dan Bylsma calls the biggest rivalry in hockey, meeting in the semifinals in Sochi four years after Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal lifted the Canadians past their North American neighbors for the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver.
It will be the 18th time the U.S. and Canada meet in men’s ice hockey at the Winter Games, the most of any two nations.
Canada holds the advantage in the series, with 11 wins to three for the U.S., with three ties. Since the world’s top players from the National Hockey League have been allowed to participate in the Olympics in 1998, Canada is 3-1 against the U.S., with two wins in the gold medal game.
“For a long time the Canadians have been expected to win tournaments, junior tournaments and international games, and I think the Americans have challenged that in recent years,” said Bylsma, coach of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.
At the 2010 Games in Vancouver, the U.S. beat Canada in group play 5-3 -- the Americans’ first Olympic win in the series in 50 years -- before losing the gold medal game 3-2. The U.S. fell behind 2-0 in the final, then rallied to tie in the final minute of regulation play before falling in overtime.
Bylsma said he thinks today’s game will also be decided by one goal. Oddsmakers are expecting a close game, with online sportsbook Bovada.lv listing it as a pick-em.
“It is a rivalry for what happened four years ago,” Canadian forward Patrice Bergeron said yesterday. “We played them twice and they were huge games, tough games, and it’s going to be the same thing again.”
The Canadian women’s team won its fourth straight Olympic title yesterday with a 3-2 overtime victory over the U.S. in the gold medal game. Canada scored two goals in the final 3 1/2 minutes of the third period to erase a 2-0 deficit.
Today’s other men’s semifinal is a rematch of the 2006 gold medal game from Torino, Italy, where Sweden defeated Finland. The Nordic rivals have played 11 times in Olympic men’s hockey, with Sweden holding a 6-2-3 advantage, including a 3-0 win during preliminary-round play four years ago.
The gold medal game is scheduled for Feb. 23, the closing day of the Sochi Games.
Finland, which has won a men’s ice hockey medal in four of the past five Olympics, defeated Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals to knock the host nation out of the tournament. It is the only team remaining with more than one non-NHL player, with 11 who play in Russia’s Kontinental League or other European leagues. Goaltender Tuukka Rusk of the NHL’s Boston Bruins isn’t among them and was Finland’s most important player in the final eight, stopping 37 of Russia’s 38 saves.
“He is incredibly skillful, has gained a lot of experience in NHL and won the Stanley Cup,” said Swedish forward Daniel Alfredsson of the Detroit Red Wings. “He and Henrik are in my book the two best goalies in the tournament.”
Sweden’s goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, has two shutouts in four games in Sochi and the highest save percentage (94.85) of any goalkeeper remaining.
The U.S. enters its semifinal with a tournament-high 20 goals in its four games, all wins. Those 20 goals have come on 120 shots -- the most efficient offense at the Sochi Games -- while Canada ranks seventh, with 13 goals on 168 shots.
In a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Latvia, Canada’s two goals came on a tournament-high 57 shots.
“The Americans have scored really easy in the tournament,” Canadian coach Mike Babcock said. “The puck just seems to go in the net for them, so they’ve been a good team.”
A win for the Americans would guarantee their first Olympic medal in the sport outside North America since taking the silver in Sapporo, Japan, in 1972. Canada needs to get past its rival to have a chance to become the first team to retain ice hockey’s gold medal since the Soviet Union in 1988.
Also on the line are bragging rights, as the players will return to their NHL teams for the continuation of their professional season two days after the Olympics end.
“There’s a lot of Canadians in our league so we want a better outcome than Vancouver,” said U.S. forward Max Pacioretty of the Montreal Canadiens. “No matter what, someone is going to hear about it for the next four years.”
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