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Olympic Observations

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

North American hockey fans are getting the rematch they were hoping for at the Winter Olympics, but unfortunately the U.S.-Canada battle will not be for the gold medal as it was in 2010 in Vancouver.

Blame Canada for its failure to beat Finland in regulation in the last game of the preliminary round because that’s what put the Canadian and American teams in the same half of the bracket.

Really, what could have been better than a rematch of that classic 2010 final when the U.S. tied the game late before Sidney Crosby cemented his legendary status with a “golden goal” in overtime.

As it is, the game on Friday at noon (NBCSN) will decide which team will play for the gold medal on Sunday against the winner of the other semifinal between Sweden and Finland.

The U.S.-Canada semifinal matchup seemed a foregone conclusion after the preliminary round, particularly after Latvia upset Switzerland and its stingy defense in the qualification round. But Latvia gave Canada — and I mean literally the whole country — quite a scare in the quarterfinals before the Canadians finally pulled out a 2-1 victory.

In the meantime, the U.S. easily handled the Czech Republic, 5-2, in a game that basically was over after David Backes scored with 1.8 seconds left in the first period to give the Americans a 3-1 lead.

Heading into the semis, the U.S. has looked more impressive during these Olympics than Canada, mainly because it has been able to score more often. But it would be a mistake to go strictly by the scoreboard because Canada has had the upper hand in every game it has played.

For example, the only reason the Canada-Latvia game wasn’t a rout was because of Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect. Canada had a whopping 57-16 shot advantage in the game, but needed a Shea Weber power-play goal in the third period to finally get rid of the Latvians.

Weber has been one of the stars of the Olympics for Canada along with fellow defenseman Drew Doughty. Weber’s goal against Latvia was his third of the Olympics, while Doughty has four, including both in the 2-1 overtime victory against Finland in the preliminary round.

Between them, Doughty and Weber have accounted for more than half of Canada’s 13 goals. While their performance has been impressive, the offensive output of the forwards has been scrutinized and criticized, and nobody has been spared — including Crosby.

Again, Canada has generated chances; it just hasn’t finished very well so far.

On the other end, Canada has allowed a mere three goals in four games.

That means the U.S. shouldn’t expect to be able to score as easily as it did against the Czech Republic when the Americans were the benefits of some shaky goaltending, particularly on the Backes goal at the end of the first period.

That said, the U.S. has been solid at both ends throughout the tournament, with different heroes emerging seemingly every game. The most impressive individual performance clearly had to be T.J. Oshie’s shootout heroics in the preliminary round victory against Russia. Watching Oshie go 4-for-6 in that shootout, it was hard not to envision Panthers forward Brad Boyes being in that spot and doing the same thing.

Speaking of the Panthers, the Olympic hockey tournament clearly was a bummer after both Aleksander Barkov and Tomas Kopecky were knocked out with injuries. In Barkov’s case, he still might be able to leave Sochi with a medal if his countrymen can continue their improbable run. Think about it, even before Barkov was injured, the Finns already were without top forwards Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Saku Koivu.

What the Finns have is a tremendous team game and stellar goaltending, thanks to Boston Bruins star Tuukka Rask.

In their semifinal, the Finns will face a Swedish team also hurt by injuries (Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin) but also featuring an All-Star goalie (Henrik Lundqvist).

The Finns advanced to the semis by beating the host Russians, who now haven’t so much as earned a bronze medal in men’s hockey in the last three Winter Olympics. That was supposed to change this year because of Russia’s elite top-end talent (Datsyuk, Malkin, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk).

But the Russians fell short because their stars didn’t produce enough, because their defense wasn’t quite up to par with that of other countries, and because they didn’t do enough of the dirty work necessary in a tournament where the difference between teams is very small.

It’s the case with the remaining four teams, each of which easily could wind up as the gold-medal winner.

The 2010 game between the U.S. and Canada showed just how small that margin is. There’s no reason to think the rematch will be any different. From a fan standpoint, we can only hope it’s not different.

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