SOCHI, Russia – To Canadians, it was destiny. Sidney Crosby called for the pass and scored the golden goal four years ago in Vancouver. Hockey is the biggest sport in Canada, and the best player in the world comes from Canada, and he delivered in the crucial moment for Canada, and he did it on home ice in Canada. There was no other way it could have gone. It was meant to be.
But to Americans, it was supposed to be different. The United States had beaten Canada in the prelims, 5-3, and come back from a 2-0 deficit in the gold-medal game. With the goalie pulled for an extra attacker, Zach Parise had scored the tying goal with 24.4 seconds left in regulation. Joe Pavelski had almost scored on a golden chance in overtime. Phil Kessel had hit a crossbar. It was sickening the way it ended.
“You think it was meant to be that you’re going to win a gold medal,” said U.S. center David Backes on Thursday. “Someone was going to be a hero that night. A couple chances both ways, and the one that went in, and all of a sudden the destiny you felt 20 minutes ago is not meant to be.”
It is still sickening. The Olympics are about moments. Athletes spend their lives working toward them, then live with them forever, one way or another. And so the Americans have been waiting for this moment: Friday night’s semifinal against the Canadians. Backes said the 13 players who were there in Vancouver are “really on a mission to avenge our loss” in Sochi, and the newcomers are taking their cues from them.
“To beat them is something that was on our list,” Backes said. “It seems like we were on a crash course to meet those guys. We get them in the semifinal instead of the final, which would have been a little more storybook to get that rivalry rekindled. But to win the gold medal you’re going to have to beat the best teams in this tournament.”
There is a perception that Canada has the best team on paper, while the Americans have had the best team on the ice. And there is truth to that. The Canadians have more talent than anyone else and look like they don’t know what to do with it all – shuffling lines, trying to piece together the puzzle – while the Americans have looked more cohesive as a team. The Canadians have struggled to score on the larger international ice sheet against European countries that have sat back and collapsed in front; the Americans have had no problems.
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But the Canadians are the best team on paper for a reason and have dominated play even in tight games, and it’s not like the U.S. executives and coaches had a better team-building method. Their personnel slots more naturally. Both teams have won all four games they have played. Both have gone to overtime once – the Americans as far as an epic eight-round shootout with Russia. The Canadians have scored 13 goals while the Americans have scored 20, most in the tournament. The Americans have given up six goals while the Canadians have given up three, fewest in the tournament.
And none of that matters much now. The cumulative stats are almost meaningless. This is not an 82-game NHL season, in which parity reigns supreme and percentages rule over the long term. This is the Olympics. The opponents are different. There is no long term, especially in the playoff round. What Canada did against Norway, Austria, Finland and Latvia has little bearing on what it will do against the United States, and what the United States did against Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic has little bearing on what it will do against Canada. The big ice will still be a factor, but not nearly as much as it has been. Both teams are in the same big boat.
These are two North American teams, evenly matched. This is one game – winner plays for gold, loser plays for bronze. Who plays better on this particular day? Who wins the matchups? Whose shots go in right here right now? Whose destiny is it going to be this time?
“We’re going to be pretty similar,” said defenseman Drew Doughty, who leads Canada with four goals. “A lot of people are worried about us not scoring and stuff like that, but against a North American team, I think this is where we’ll really pick it up and show how well we can score. Guys are going to step up to the plate, put pucks in the net, and they’re going to have guys that are flying, too. We match up well against each other, and I think it’s going to be the best game of the tournament.”
“We’re not going to try and match any team in this tournament skill-wise,” said Team USA coach Dan Bylsma. “We didn’t do that with the Russians. We’re not going to do that with the Canadians. They have more skill, and they’re a deeper team. But we’re a harder team to play against. We’re going to match up and go toe-to-toe with them that way. It doesn’t mean we’re going to back down. It doesn’t mean we’re going to play a shell and let them come at us and give them 50 shots and try and win with 15. This is the matchup that I think we wanted and we’re ready for.”
An average of 16.6 million Canadians watched the gold medal showdown four years ago in Vancouver – half the country’s population. But an average of 27.6 million Americans watched it, too. The U.S. players didn’t realize it then, because they were in their Olympic cocoon, but when they got home, they heard about the impact they’d had.
Parise heard about the Ice Vault Arena in Wayne, N.J., where he worked a hockey camp as a member of the New Jersey Devils. There was a tournament there that weekend, and during the third period, it stopped. “There were games supposed to be played, and everyone’s jammed in the lobby watching,” Parise said. “The place erupted when we scored at the end.” (He, he means. The end of regulation, he means.)
Bylsma, coach of the Penguins, watched from a folding chair in a bar in Pittsburgh. When the puck came to Crosby in OT, he got up. He had a bad feeling. When the captain of his NHL team became a hero, he wasn’t surprised, just disappointed. “I can’t say I was happy for Sid,” Bylsma said. “At the time I wasn’t anywhere close to the 2014 Games. I might have been in a bar in Pittsburgh, but I got up from that chair and was ready to get to 2014, I know that.”
Imagine if Pavelski or Kessel had scored in OT instead of Crosby. Imagine the reaction all over the United States had the Americans won their first gold since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team, not their second silver against the same damn Canadians since 2002.
Team USA is imagining it now.
“It’s still vivid in my mind,” Backes said. “There’s a bit of sting and inspiration and drive that comes from that. … Months later, you put it in perspective, and you say, ‘Hey, I got a silver medal, and we were part of an amazing team that played in one of the best hockey games ever played.’ And there’s something to be said for that. But if you were on the other end of that, I think it’s a lot more sweet.”