Canada's game: U.S. can't quite keep up in epic Olympic semifinal

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

SOCHI, Russia — The nations are separated by a fine line in geography and in hockey. But in both – from the 49th parallel to the Winter Olympics – Canada is north.

Nothing has changed.

The United States wanted to turn the world upside down – the hockey world, anyway – after its men and women both settled for silver against Canada four years ago in Vancouver. The Americans came close in Sochi. Yet they could not knock the globe off its axis any more than they could fight gravity. Barack Obama owes Stephen Harper two cases of beer.

The Canadian men will go for back-to-back gold medals after smothering the Americans on Friday night, 1-0. The Canadian women just won back-to-back-to-back-to-back gold medals after shocking the Americans on Thursday night, 3-2, rallying from a 2-0 deficit in the final 3:26 of regulation and winning in overtime.

This is no time for Canada to feel superior, no time to act smug. These were one-goal games. They could have gone either way. And the men still have to beat Sweden on Sunday to keep the country No. 1 across the board. But from Coal Harbour to Cole Harbour, this is a time to be proud.

The men watched the women. The women inspired the men. Both held off their closest rivals.

“It’s amazing,” said center Jonathan Toews. “In some ways, that felt like the ultimate game. In the last couple of days, just the hype around the game, and watching the women’s game last night, how both fans wanted it so bad for their team and … We wanted it pretty bad, too. It was nice to get that one.”

Some of the men were in the stands for the women’s game. Others were glued to the television back at the village. They knew the American women had won five of the past seven world championships and were looking to take over at the Olympics, and they saw how their fellow Canadians couldn’t generate much.

Then they saw Brianne Jenner score when a puck deflected in off an American with 3:26 to go. Then they saw a puck slide toward an empty Canadian net – only to hit the post. Then they saw Marie-Philip Poulin score with 56.4 seconds left and again 8:10 into overtime.

[Related: How Canada humbled Team USA's offensive machine]

“I think we cheered louder when Canada tied it up than when we scored in this tournament,” said winger Patrick Sharp, who sat in the stands with Martin St-Louis until the end of the third, then headed back to the village to see OT on TV. “I’m really proud of the women’s team for winning. They’ve shown great support to us all tournament long, and they’re behind us right now.”

Center Hayley Wickenheiser and goalie Shannon Szabados went to the men’s morning skate Friday, even though they had been celebrating and hadn’t slept yet. Wickenheiser, Szabados and Jenner wrote a letter to the men. It went up on the bulletin board in the dressing room.

The note said: “Guys. Tonight is yours. Own the moment. We are proof that every minute matters. The podium is reserved for the brave. Earn every inch, dictate the pace and go get ’em! From the girls! :-)”

America is the home of the brave, but the only way the Americans will make the podium now is if they win bronze against Finland on Saturday. The Canadian men owned the moment, just like women did, except they took a 1-0 lead on a second-period goal by Jamie Benn and didn’t have to come from behind. They earned every inch, and they sure dictated the pace.

From the very beginning in August, when coach Mike Babcock had the men play ball hockey at orientation camp in Calgary because Hockey Canada couldn’t pay to insure their NHL contracts, he wanted players who could skate fast and think fast with and without the puck. He installed a relatively simple system so they wouldn’t have to think, so they could execute at a high pace, so their ridiculous depth would make it hard for opponents to keep up.

[Also: 5 things we learned from Canada's victory over the U.S.]

In their first four games, the men ran into European teams that sat back, collapsed in front and kept them to the perimeter on the larger international ice sheet – Norway, Finland, Latvia. They struggled to get inside and score – except against Austria, the one team that dared to try to skate with Canada – and it was alarming because of their array of NHL superstars up front. Still, they possessed the puck and generated chances. They didn’t panic, didn’t give up much and didn’t lose. They won four games and allowed three goals, the fewest in the tournament.

The Americans entered the semifinals with 20 goals, the most in the tournament. But they played a more North American style, and they played into Canada’s hands. The Canadians did what they talked about back in August. They pushed the pace. The game was so fast, it was like watching an NHL game on a DVR with one click of the FF button.

“That was as fast a game as I think I’ve ever been a part of,” said Team USA coach Dan Bylsma. “There was lots of speed out there. It was up and down the ice. We weren’t able to maybe counter that. We weren’t able to match that as much as we would like.”

The difference in the game was the goal by Benn, who deflected a hard pass from Jay Bouwmeester. Both coaches agreed that both teams had better chances, but that’s the puck that went in. Canada’s Carey Price stopped 31 shots and earned the shutout. The United States’ Jonathan Quick stopped 36 shots and couldn’t be faulted on the one he missed. A bounce here, a bounce there, and Quick could have won 1-0.

[Watch: Team USA can't get untracked against Canada's star-studded lineup]

But the difference in the teams was bigger than the score and even the shot totals. The Americans would keep pace for stretches, then fall off. They got the matchups they wanted with the last change, but the Canadians were just deeper. How much deeper? Benn, the guy who scored the lone goal, didn’t even play ball hockey in August because he wasn’t one of the 40-plus players invited to camp.

The Canadians were just better, and it built up. They kept the Americans from forechecking with clean exits and kept the puck in the offensive end. They generated more chances than the Americans. When they didn’t have the puck, they came back hard. They were structured. They killed three penalties.

“I know we all laughed about running around in our running shoes in August,” Sharp said. “But things happened fast when we got here in Sochi, and I think it provided us a basis for what we’re building off of now. It was definitely beneficial.”

[Photo gallery: Gut-wrenching loss for U.S. men's team]

Scoring is still a concern, especially entering a one-game, winner-take-all scenario against Sweden’s superstar goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. “We’ve had unbelievable opportunities and still haven’t finished,” Babcock said. “We’re gonna finish. We just hope we don’t run out of time.”

But nothing has changed, not yet. Canada is still on top of the United States, and it has a chance to stay on top of the world. Harper needs to make a new bet. Hey, King of Sweden, what kind of beer ya got?

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