VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Team USA goalie Ryan Miller believes his team's victory over Canada in the preliminary round changed the dynamics for both teams, leading to this historic gold-medal rematch on Canadian ice.
"I kind of think that game was pivotal for both teams," he said. "That fact that we won gave us confidence going forward, and [it's] maybe why we're here. And maybe that loss helped them — really motivated them," he said.
This isn't the same Canadian team Miller faced in the prelims: new goalie, new lines and, as he said, more focused and motivated play than the Americans saw from them. What encourages U.S. GM Brian Burke about this rematch is that he has seen improvement from his club since that game, too — sparked by Burke's reality check about the Americans' play after they went 3-0.
"What I like about our tournament is that we've gotten better. I don't think we had all hands on deck in the preliminary round. Our goaltender stole the Canada game. I thought we had 10 guys pulling on the rope, which is why I blasted them," he said. "I know people were surprised when we were 3-0 and I whacked the players a little bit, but I really felt that we didn't have a chance in this round if we didn’t get contributions across a broader spectrum."
The stakes today for Team USA aren't what they are for Canada, which may or may not work to the Americans' advantage. But the stakes couldn't be higher in Burke's eyes:
"A gold medal immortalizes a team."
Here are five factors that could help lead the United States to gold over Canada.
1. Take the Crowd Out, and Make It Work for Them
The most pivotal moment in the first U.S.-Canada game was Brian Rafalski's goal 41 seconds in. It sucked the life out of the building, making fans reevaluate their predictions and preconceived notions of the American club. That vibe transferred to the ice, and changed the emotional dynamic of the game.
This crowd will be pro-Canada in a major way. The Americans need to keep the game close, or lead it, to turn that incredible passion in the stands into pressure on the Canadians.
2. Embrace the Truculence
The United States has two major roster advantages over Canada. One is goalie Ryan Miller, the best in the tournament. The other is the fact that Burke and his brain trust have built the roster with both stars and role players who have been incredibly effective in this tournament.
"We're not asking 30-goal scorers to do grunt work. We have grunts that are doing the grunt work. When we put this team together, we indentified people who were good at specific tasks," said Burke. "These are not players that are going to bitch about ice time or situational positional play. Not going to turn to the coach and say, 'Why am I not on the power play?' because they're not on the power play anyway."
Granted, the Canadian line featuring Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards has been every bit as good as the David Backes-led crash line for the Americans. But overall, there's more fighting in the corners and sacrificing the body from Team USA. They block a ton of shots on defense, for example. They're not going to be outworked in this game, even in defeat.
3. Win, or Play Even, on Special Teams
In the first meeting, the Canadians scored once on the power play in four chances and the Americans scored once in six chances. Their power play efficiencies overall in this tournament are separated by less than a percentage point, but Canada is tied with Russia for the lead in penalty killing (88.24 percent).
The U.S. needs to capitalize on its offensive chances; that's obvious. But it also needs to stay out of the box or, if caught, snuff out Canada's energized power play unit.
4. Get Something from the Stars
Patrick Kane came to life against Finland with two goals. Zach Parise saved the day against the Swiss with two goals. The Americans don't have the overall weaponry of Team Canada, but they do have a few individual difference-makers. They have to show up today.
5. Hope for a Luuuuu-splosion
While it's inconceivable that a second Canadian goalie would hand over a game to the U.S., as Marty Brodeur was accused of doing in Round 1, let's face it: We've already seen Evgeni Nabokov and Miikka Kiprusoff flame out in this tournament thanks to the pressure.
Miller has shown himself to be an unflappable goaltender. Luongo has let in some soft goals and, traditionally, hasn't dominated in these types of championship-level games. That softy against the Slovaks was enough to at least broach the idea of Luongo struggling in this spot against the United States.
But let's hope he doesn't. Because this should be a hockey game, not a laugher like Canada-Russia or United States-Finland. And it should be a hockey game for the ages.