The semifinal games are all set for the hockey tournament at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and feature two of the best international rivalries in the game. The United States will play Canada and Sweden will face Finland, with a shot at the gold-medal game on the line in each.
As a hockey fan, there is so much to love about these two matchups.
For me, it starts with the United States.
I think the U.S. is playing a great style of hockey. They've made a great transition onto the international ice. They're playing with a lot of speed, and that's exactly what coach Dan Bylsma wanted. He talked about that coming into the quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic. They've looked fast and pushed the pace while doing a good job of attacking the middle of the ice. They've done a good job of playing down low and not wasting too much time with a cycle that is too far out on the boards. They're cycling a little bit closer to the center of the ice, something that Canada has struggled with. They've been cycling like they're on an NHL rink. The farther out you are, the easier it is for the opposing team to defend, and it's harder for you because you have to take extra steps to get back to the middle of the ice to get a shot opportunity.
The U.S. looks comfortable. I think a lot of guys who can score are scoring. Zach Parise got his first goal against the Czech Republic, but he's always working whether he scores or not. Phil Kessel has been dynamic, as have James van Riemsdyk, David Backes ... you can go around the horn. Their defensemen have done a good job of getting the puck to the forwards and making plays, and their forwards have done a great job scoring.
Meanwhile, the Canadian forwards haven't clicked.
Let's be honest, the Latvian goalie, Kristers Gudlevskis, was amazing in the quarterfinal against Canada. That was a Michael Jordan performance. But at the same time, it wasn't as though Canada was doing a good job of using the width of the rink. They weren't playing with the speed and pace you'd expect with all that talent in that lineup. I didn't see a lot of attack from the second wave and third wave. They're going to have to find another gear. Those are just some of the adjustments they're going to have to make. The U.S. is just going to have to play the way they have so far.
I'm interested to see who is going to come in for Canada now that John Tavares is out of the tournament. That's a huge blow to Canada and the New York Islanders. Who is it going to be in his absence? I think it should be Matt Duchene. You want speed, you want electricity and creativity? I don't see how Duchene doesn't get a bigger role.
Sweden-Finland is another great rivalry featuring two of the NHL's best goalies in Henrik Lundqvist and Tuukka Rask. Each can steal games. They're locked in; they're focused. They're going to make the saves you expect, and they're going to make some of the saves that seem impossible to make. I just love the goalie matchup.
Beyond that, Erik Karlsson has been amazing. He's flying. He has so much more room to be Erik Karlsson out there on the big sheet, and he's taken full advantage of it. He's been a game-breaker for Sweden.
In Finland, you have more of a grittier team, but still a skilled team, and they've been led by a game-breaker of their own in Mikael Granlund up front. Look at the way he played in the quarterfinal against Russia. He's a difference-maker. There are three players who are indispensable to the Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter, Parise and Granlund. When any one of those guys is out, Minnesota is a different team. He is a key because his puck control and craftiness in the offensive zone help set the table for a lot of other players. He's a facilitator, but he can also score on his own.
Of course, we can't talk about this game without bringing up Teemu Selanne in what is expected to be his last chance to win Olympic gold. Selanne is a player a lot of people should be emulating as far as how to carry yourself and how to interact with people. You don't find people with bad things to say about Teemu. He's amazing. Think of what a thrill this is to young guys like Granlund and Olli Maatta. Those kids grew up idolizing this guy and now they're playing with him. And he treats them well and is empowering them and encouraging them. For Teemu Selanne, this would be a great shining moment to what has already been one of the best careers in the history of the League.
Despite key injuries to players like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Henrik Sedin, Sweden is still a tough team to play. The main reason for that is how they groom players. In Sweden, there's a lot of emphasis on playing a complete game. There's an emphasis on being creative and responsible, and being conditioned and thinking the game, but also being encouraged to make a play. From my understanding, there isn't a clear, defined, limited way that you're allowed to play hockey in Sweden. We do have some of those limitations in Canada.
A perfect example of that is Alexander Steen, who is a jack-of-all-trades. He does everything well. He's not limited in terms of what his role can or should be.
All of these elements will play out Friday in Sochi, with a ticket to the big game on the line.