Sport-loving citizens of the good ol’ U-S-of-A will be sitting in front of their televisions in rapt attentiveness as college football season kicks off nationwide this afternoon. There’s no doubt that football is king for Canada’s southerly neighbours, but when Olympic season rolls around, Americans are as patriotic as they come. And when it comes to hockey, they’ll be thirsting for revenge.
There’s definitely a unique breed of animosity that is renewed every time Canada and USA faceoff in international competition. As Canadians, we tend to take this hockey thing a little too seriously sometimes, and when another nation comes along trying to take our self-proclaimed title of “Best Hockey Nation In The Universe™”, we get defensive. Americans tend to display a special type of arrogance when it comes to international competition, and we still have the marks to show the times we’ve been beaten down by the stars-and-stripes-clad powerhouse in most sporting events. But when it comes to hockey, it’s OUR game, and we’ll defend our place in the hockey world like a mother bear defending one of her cubs.
The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver were a perfect example of this rivalry at its best. The Canadians and Americans both ended up in the same group along with Switzerland and Norway. It was basically about as easy a group as either of the North American countries could have asked for, but they would have to fight each other for that coveted first spot coming out of the group. USA slipped by Switzerland 3-1, then pounded Norway 6-1 to set up a final game against Canada that would decide who would emerge on top of the group.
As any American hockey fan will tell you, the USA upset Canada in that game, with goaltender Ryan Miller making 42 saves en route to a 5-3 victory. Head Coach Mike Babcock made the call to go with Martin Brodeur in the Canadian crease, and he was underwhelming, allowing four goals (the fifth goal was an empty-netter) on 22 shots. Brodeur wouldn’t see the net for the rest of the tournament.
With the top spot in the group locked up, USA went on to face Switzerland again in the quarterfinals. Jonas Hiller battled valiantly making 42 saves, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Americans from winning 2-0. That set up a semifinal showdown with scrappy Finland, but it turned out to be rather anticlimactic with USA running away with a 6-1 victory. As fate would have it, a rematch against the resurgent Canadians would be in store for the gold-medal game.
As it turned out, the game didn’t disappoint, and will probably be known as the most memorable Olympic gold-medal game ever. The Canadians came out to a 2-0 lead early in the second period, with the Americans replying late in the frame to close the gap to one goal. With time ticking down in the third period, Zach Parise stunned the hockey world by scoring with 25 seconds left. The gold medal would be decided by sudden-death overtime.
You know the rest. Canada’s faith in the hockey gods was restored as Sidney Crosby scored the winner seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime. The moment was probably immortalized on a postage stamp or commemorative coin or something. But it was really just an amazing hockey game, with both sides playing very entertaining, fast-paced hockey. Either team deserved to win the game, and the USA showed they belong in the conversation for “Best Hockey Nation In The Universe™” with that showing.
OK, enough with the reminiscing. The Americans will once again be in contention for a medal in Sochi, and definitely have the goaltending to rival any team in the world, even Finland or Sweden. They’ll compete in Group A along with Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia, and should be able to qualify for the quarterfinals with ease. I examined the group USA brought to their orientation camp this past week and came up with a final 25-man roster. Here are my picks:
- I wanted to keep a third line of Brown, Backes and Callahan together because I think that would be an absolutely infuriating line to play against. You could probably call either the first two lines your “first line”; the talent is pretty spread out. I wanted to make sure both lines had a big guy (Pacioretty and Kesler) because the rest of the top six is pretty small in stature. Kyle Okposo didn’t make the cut because his offense has declined significantly the past two years.
- I had a really tough time coming up with this defense. Does Erik Johnson deserve to make this team? Meh, I dunno. I think that would be more of a reputation pick than anything else. There are a lot of young, really skilled guys who are close to making this team, including Cam Fowler, Justin Faulk and Jake Gardiner. This group already has enough puck-movers in Byfuglien, Carlson, Yandle and Shattenkirk, so I wanted to even things out by putting some more defensively responsible guys in.
- Goaltending was another very tough position to nail down. It was difficult to leave Ryan Miller and Cory Schneider off the team. Miller was lights-out in the last Olympics, and has been one of the more consistent goalies in the NHL the past few years. I think he’s a little underappreciated (call it the Roberto Luongo Syndrome) because he’s been so good for so long that people forget about him. Schneider simply hasn’t started enough games in the NHL to beat out any of those three guys, but might be the best of the bunch when all is said in done. At the end of the day, Quick has become as close to unbeatable as you can come in the playoffs the last two years, and his entire 2011-12 year was MVP-worthy. If Anderson didn’t get hurt last year he probably would have won the Vezina Trophy, and has also had a couple outstanding playoffs’. Howard has become one of the best goalies in the league over the past few years. Any three of these guys could see themselves starting in Sochi, and the USA Hockey management team should be thrilled to start any one of them.