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Canada to face different challenge against U.S.

by Corey Masisak

SOCHI -- The United States cruised through its three preliminary-round games and one quarterfinal matchup by outscoring its opponents 19-6. Canada eked out back-to-back one-goal wins, including an overtime victory against Finland in the preliminary round, to make it this far.

As the teams prepare to play Friday at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with an appearance in the gold-medal game on the line, it remains to be seen if all those previous games were a harbinger or irrelevant.

Hindsight will likely produce quite the narrative after hockey's two North American powers play thousands of miles from home in the semifinals of this tournament. Will Canada's trouble scoring prove to be its undoing, or has the United States still not faced a team with legitimate defensive acumen?

The Canadians arrive at the precipice of returning to the gold-medal game with 13 goals in four games, and four in the past two. They will face the high-flying Americans, who have racked up goals against every opponent save for Russia, who they still beat 3-2 in a shootout.

"We play a U.S. team that seems to score real easy. We haven't scored real easy, but we'll be ready to play," Canada coach Mike Babcock said after his team collected a 2-1 victory Wednesday against Latvia. "I thought that the adversity that we faced tonight was a real positive thing for us, just like the game against Finland. So to me that's a positive thing. We plan on getting better each and every day."

Canada struggled to create chances against Finland's disciplined defensive structure. That was not the problem against the Latvians.

The Canadians found scoring opportunities in all situations and with any combination of skaters on the ice. The shot totals increased as the game wore on, and they imposed their will against the Latvians.

What they didn't do was solve Tampa Bay Lightning goaltending prospect Kristers Gudlevskis for a long portion of the game. Gudlevskis turned aside 55 shots, including at least one from each of the 20 skaters who dressed for Canada.

Shea Weber and Patrick Sharp provided the goals, meaning the defensemen are outscoring the forwards for Canada, 7-6.

"I don't know what we'd go back and change," Canada captain Sidney Crosby said. "You look at tonight, and besides picking the puck up and throwing it in the net, what could you tell someone to do in those situations? I think you just trust in what you do. I think as far as the depth that we have, we know that guys are going to put those in. It's nice to get that from the D, that's for sure."

Finland and Latvia presented different variations of a similar defensive style. The United States will provide a different kind of challenge.

Canada and the United States met twice during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and each was a fast, back-and-forth game. It might be a little different on the international ice surface, but the Americans are not going to sit back and wait for the Canadians to provide all of the offensive pressure.

"We're obviously familiar with the guys we're facing next game from back home in North America, but that doesn't really change our approach," Sharp said. "You have to stick with the game plan for three periods and try not to get frustrated at any time."

The Canadians have been strong defensively, and while everyone has focused on the lack of goals, their ability to prevent them might be the deciding factor Friday night. After beating the Czech Republic 5-2 in the quarterfinals, the Americans have a tournament-high 19 goals.

"Obviously we'd like to score more goals but we're on the same spot they are, we still found a way to get where they are," Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith said. "It'll be a big test, though."

Babcock said, "The puck just seems to be going in the net for them. I've watched some of their action, and they seem to be scoring. The [Joe] Pavelski line (with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk) 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. 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."

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