SOCHI, Russia – The U.S. and Canada weren’t seeded in the same group in the Sochi Olympics. But David Backes felt it was inevitable that the archrivals would meet again.
“We were destined and on a crash course against each other,” he said after Team USA’s 5-2 win over the Czech Republic in their quarterfinal meeting on Wednesday.
“Semifinals in a foreign land, we’ve traveled 5,000 miles to play each other and we share a long border against each other. That’s the great thing about this tournament: In order to win it, you’re going to have to beat great competition.”
[Photos: USA tops Czech Republic in quarterfinal 5-2]
Canada’s 2-1 win over Latvia cemented this rematch of the gold-medal game from 2010 on Friday night, but the two teams are hardly in the same place as four years ago. Canada has struggled to find consistency in its offense, playing consecutive 1-goal games against Finland and Latvia.
“That’s just the way it is. They’re close games. The way this ice surface is, it’s just defend, defend, defend. What do you do? You try to get pucks at the net, you try to beat your guy off the wall and go to the net,” said defenseman Duncan Keith of Canada. “We were able to score two one-timer goals off quick plays. We’re trying. It’s going to our biggest test next game.’’
The Americans, meanwhile, lead the tournament in goals (20).
“The puck just seems to be going in the net for them,” said Canada coach Mike Babcock. “I've watched some of their action, and they seem to be scoring. The Pavelski line seems to be just flying and filling the net. And we haven't had that. We feel we have quality players who have gotten quality opportunities, real good looks, and we haven't scored.
Could a game against their rivals help Canada find the back of the net?
“It's my experience over time with playoff-type hockey — this stuff happens; in the end, though, you can't usually keep the skilled guys who score and are determined down. I'm optimistic, to say the least,” said Babcock.
[Related: Russia sees hockey team's ouster as national disappointment; U.S. sees opportunity]
No matter how well Team USA is playing in the Sochi Games, Canada remains the measuring stick – literally the gold standard for the U.S.
"They're obviously the favorite coming into the tournament, and we've opened up a lot of eyes with our play, but we have more in the tank to give and to show,” said Max Pacioretty of the U.S. team.
But in the end, it all comes back to a sense of unfinished business for the Americans.
“It’s a chance for us to get on that winning side of that game,” said Zach Parise, whose goal sent the 2010 gold-medal game into overtime. “Granted, it is just a semifinal game, but it’s a chance for us to get into the gold-medal game. So, regardless of who we’re playing, it’s such an important game for us, just to have a crack at winning again.”
There are 13 players on the U.S. team who played in the Vancouver Games.
“Obviously we came in here with one goal, and that’s to win the gold," said Paul Stastny of the U.S. team, adding that they want to "kind of finish off what we started in 2010, and that round robin was our first step, this quarterfinal was our second step, and obviously Friday night is going to be our next step. We’re looking at that first, knowing that it’s going to be a tough game, no matter what. No matter what guys play, what guys don’t play, anytime you play Canada, there’s always that special rivalry and that special intensity that’s always going to be there."
It’s a rivalry that pits friend vs. friend and teammate vs. teammate.
“It’s going to be fun. A little different seeing him in a different uniform,” said Patrick Sharp of Canada on his Chicago Blackhawks’ teammate Patrick Kane. “I know he’s a skilled player, and he works very hard. It will be difficult playing hard against him, but I’m going to play my butt off every time he’s out there.”
Discussing Kane, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said: “He’s alright. That Kessel guy is even better, though.”
It’s a rivalry that pits coach vs. his star player, too.
“I know prior to leaving we both wished each other luck, and now we’re going to get that opportunity to go head to head, the Canadians versus the Americans,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma of his Pittsburgh Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby. “We will have a game plan, we will have preparations made, and we’re going to need ‘em.”
Canada vs. the U.S. It was always going to happen, wasn’t it?
“It’s inevitable to have to go through the U.S. to have to win a gold medal,” said Toews. “This is a huge moment, and we have to embrace it and have fun with it.”