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NBC relishing consecutive U.S.-Canada games

by Jon Lane

If it were up to NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, all activities work and play will cease to exist Friday at noon Eastern Time when the United States and Canada play for the right to advance to the gold-medal game at the 2014 Sochi Olympics (NBCSN, CBC).

The coveted rematch four years in the making lacks the prize from the Vancouver Olympics when gold was on the line, but that didn't stop NBC from creating a marketing blitz after televising and streaming one of the greatest games the sport has produced on a national or international stage.

The glow of the Canadian women's dramatic 3-2 overtime win Thursday against the Americans that won them Olympic gold remained bright when Lazarus joined NBC Olympic hockey analysts Eddie Olczyk, Pierre McGuire and Jeremy Roenick on a conference call to announce an initiative that's been rolled out over the NBC family of networks and websites which simply asks, "What are you doing for lunch Friday?"

Working professionals across the U.S. and Canada put labor aside to make the women's Olympic gold medal game the most-streamed event in the history of NBC Sports Digital, excluding Super Bowl XLVI, with 1.2 million unique users watching for 34.9 million minutes, and there's reason to expect the men will break through that record digitally.

"For 2 1/2 hours the best players in all of North America will be playing against each other," Lazarus said. "I think it will be bigger than anything that's happened at lunch time. It should be a 2 1/2-hour national holiday. Cheering for Team USA and Team Canada is something both of these teams deserve and they deserve the attention of American fans."

The women's game captivated American and Canadian audiences watching at home, work and local watering holes from the opening faceoff to Marie-Philip Poulin's golden goal, scored on a power play 8:10 into overtime. Poulin's first goal was Canada's second in the final 3:26 of regulation that sent the true north into bedlam and America into a state of shock. The game could also turn out to be a shot of adrenaline for women's hockey to receive a grand stage more often than every four years.

"I think the progression for the women's game is right on track," McGuire said nearly an hour after Canada's win. "It's making significant progress. It's an exciting time to be involved in the game. I know the NHL is paying attention to it. I know the IIHF is paying attention to it. And the best thing is that so many women, young women in particular, playing the game have seen that bright future for the game of hockey for the women."

For the men, the future is now with a fever pitch close to the Miracle On Ice team against the Soviet Union in 1980. Canada and Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty made no secret of his burning desire to defeat the Americans.

"You want those bragging rights for the rest of the season, for the rest of your life, really," he said. "I want to beat them so badly."

But though Canada is on the precipice of another gold-medal game, its third since 2002, scoring has been a concern.

Doughty and fellow defenseman Shea Weber have totaled seven of Canada's 13 goals, with three more coming from Jeff Carter's natural hat trick in a 6-0 win against Austria. Conversely, centers Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf, the League's top-two points leaders with 78 and 67, respectively, have combined for one goal and five points in Canada's four games.

If there's ever a time for the Canadians to break down the wall, it's Friday.

"They need to find a way to finish off the opportunities," Olczyk said. "I think that the Canadians are playing better as the tournament goes on and usually that's a pretty good sign when you get into a tournament like this and the Olympics."

Roenick cites chemistry as an issue in addition to offense. In McGuire's words, what's been hurting the Canadians is "paralysis from analysis" in too often tinkering, fixing and trying to re-fix.

"They just haven't been able to get anything steady going," McGuire said. "I think if the Canadians are going to win, the one way they can win is make it a smash-mouth board game like they do in the National Hockey League. The problem is the 15 extra feet of ice in terms of the width of the rink. It's really difficult to play that style, so it will be interesting to see if they do."

Canada will have to bring it physically against a United States team that's lived with the pain of Crosby's golden goal from Vancouver the past four years, but one that's also currently running like a Corvette. The Canadians had to fight it against Norway and Latvia, squeaking by the latter 2-1 to get to the semifinals, and needed overtime to defeat another semifinalist in Finland. The Americans, though, have sprinted into the final four with a transition game that's produced a tournament-high 19 goals, three on the power play in 11 opportunities, with Phil Kessel's five goals leading all Olympic scorers.

"The key for Team USA is that they have to play a fast, transitional game against Team Canada," Olczyk said. "That's how they're built, with speed, with their size, with their ability to go from defense to offense very quickly. If they can get that transition game going, they're going to generate some offense.

"I really believe that both of these teams have yet to see the type of team they're going to face [Friday]. They have not seen a team in these Olympics that can score and can generate like the other can. I expect [Friday] to be a high-scoring game, I really do. I think both these teams are going to get chances and I can see a total of seven, eight, nine goals in that game."

Records have been established as the stakes have been raised, and even with Canada yet to get untracked, there's something about the United States that brings out their best.

The next compelling chapter will be unveiled Friday at noon.

"For me, it's still the U.S. versus Canada," Roenick said. "Whenever you have the U.S. versus Canada, you're going to get the best from both teams. I think this is a flip of a coin, a toss-up for me. I would not be surprised if this game again goes to an overtime game. I'm going to stress it again. This is U.S. versus Canada, boy. It doesn't get any bigger for the United States."


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