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Team USA gets ready for biggest test on Rivalry Sunday

by Shawn P. Roarke
VANCOUVER -- Team USA coach Ron Wilson is worried what Sunday will bring for his young, virtually untested team.

That day, the Americans play Team Canada in the final game of Group A play. The winner will finish atop the group and earn a bye into Wednesday's quarterfinals. The loser will likely be tossed into the qualification round and have to win a game on Tuesday to get into the final eight.

The United States (2-0-0-0, 6 points), surprisingly, is in the driver's seat of the race for the bye after the Canadians were forced into a shootout by the Swiss before winning 3-2 on Thursday. As a result, Canada has just 5 points after its first two games.

Canada would earn the bye, however, even if it won in OT or the shootout. Both teams would finish with 7 points, but Canada would have a better goal-differential -- the Canadiens enter the game at plus-9 to Team USA's plus-7.

But this is not just your run-of-the-mill game for seeding into the single-elimination portion of an Olympic tournament that has been riveting and emotional from the moments the Americans kicked it off with a harder-than-expected win against Switzerland.

On Sunday, the six heavyweights in the tournament collide at Canada Hockey Place in a 12-hour festival of all that the sport has to offer. Finland and Sweden open the festivities with a rematch of the 2006 gold-medal game. Russia and the Czechs, the protagonists in the 1998 goal-medal game, close the festivities. In the middle, the young Americans battle the host Canadians, who were the unquestioned favorites entering this tournament.

These two teams played in the gold-medal game eight years ago, turning in a performance for the ages that ended with Canada claiming gold and putting paid to a 50-year gold-medal drought in Olympic hockey.

So Wilson understands the implications of what will take place here on Sunday and can appreciate the uniqueness of the day as a fan.

"I think it'll be very intense on Sunday," he said. "I think this is one of the greatest hockey days of all time. It's all natural rivals, border rivals. You've got the Czechs and the Russians for their own separate reasons, Swedes and Finns and U.S. and Canada.

"It might be one of the greatest hockey days internationally of all time. It should be Hockey Day in Canada on Sunday. It's not Toronto playing Ottawa or Calgary playing Edmonton. This takes on an entirely different meaning for all the people involved."

But, as a coach, he is concerned about the psyche of his team, which -- for a variety of reasons -- often struggles in big games against their rivals to the north.

"It's going to be interesting to see early on where are emotions are," Wilson said after beating Norway to go 2-0-0-0 to start the tournament. "I've been a part of these big games against Canada before. You have to maintain your composure.

"You want to be excited, but not to the point where you are dead after the first period, or even the warmup. We've got a lot of young guys that haven't played in huge games."

"It might be one of the greatest hockey days internationally of all time. It should be Hockey Day in Canada on Sunday. It's not Toronto playing Ottawa or Calgary playing Edmonton. This takes on an entirely different meaning for all the people involved."
-- Team USA coach Ron Wilson

As a result, Wilson has spent the past two days stressing simplicity. He wants his team to play a simple north-south game; to execute without thinking. He believes the key to the game will be the forecheck. If the Americans can get their legs moving and get in on the forecheck, they can dictate the pace and tenor of the game and perhaps lessen the impact of the crowd, which will be the most passionate and hostile they may face in their career.

Wilson is right in his belief.

In the first six periods of this tournament -- stretched across a 3-1 win against Switzerland and 6-1 win against Norway -- the Americans have been both good and bad.

When the Americans were on, they were forechecking with passion. In fact, their most consistent line through 120 minutes of hockey has been a fourth line that does nothing more than forecheck and cycle as if their lives depended on it. Their best player has been St. Louis power forward David Backes, who is about nothing more than brutally efficient straight lines and contact wherever he can find it.

Norwegian coach Roy Johansen has played both the Americans and the Canadians, dropping an 8-0 decision to Team Canada on the tournament's first day. He has seen both teams compete in game conditions and is as excited as anyone to see the shakeout of Sunday's showdown of North American hockey.

But he said Thursday that he likes the odds for the Americans if they play the forechecking game that had the Norwegians on their heels in the first and third periods of Thursday's game.

"I think the U.S. is faster and they forecheck harder," Johansen said. "I think the toughest period for us to get through (in the tournament) was the first period against the U.S. team. They were playing very well, worked hard and didn't give us a chance to play the puck. If they keep playing like they did in the first, they will be a tough team to beat."

Olympic Gear Certainly, this American team has the skill to beat the Canadians. It can even be argued that they match up well against the Canadians, featuring a world-class goalie and size, skill and truculence up front.

So the game could very well come down to handles the pressure better.

Are the Americans too young to keep their composure in the face of a hostile crowd? Or, are they too young to care about the stakes presented by Sunday's contest and play a freer, looser game than the veteran Canadians, who will have the expectations of a nation riding on their shoulders?

The answer will be delivered during 2-1/2 hours of compelling competition at Canada Hockey Place on Sunday afternoon. The hockey world -- including the American players themselves -- can't wait for the results.
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