Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
/ Pittsburgh Penguins
VANCOUVER -- So close to the gold-medal game that only they believe they are worthy of, the Americans are not going to get caught looking past Friday's semifinal match against Finland at Canada Hockey Place.
The stakes are far too high to get caught up in flights of fancy about playing for Olympic immortality in what will be the signature event of the 2010 Games. For Team USA, only Friday and only Finland matter -- not the 4-0 record that delivered them to this point nor what awaits if they can defeat a stubborn Finnish side that won silver four years ago.
"You want to keep yourself in the right head space for sure," said goalie Ryan Miller, who has been brilliant throughout the tournament, allowing just five goals in four games. "We have a very difficult game against Finland coming up.
"They are a very fast, very well-organized team. They have has some big shots from the point on their power play to mix with some skill around the net, so it is going to be a challenge and a tough game."
Miller knows what is on tap.
He probably watched Wednesday night in the late quarterfinal when the Slovaks used their speed and some well-placed shots to torment Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who had not allowed a goal in pool play. When it was over, Lundqvist had watched four shots find the back of his net and the Slovaks were celebrating their historic 4-3 victory.
The Swedes, likely thinking about a semifinal showdown against Canada, were suddenly no longer defending Olympic champions. Instead, they were just one of the eight teams eliminated before the medal round.
But if his teammates need a reminder of the challenges that await on Friday against Finland, perhaps they should just look in the mirror.
The young, brash Americans have spent this tournament putting teams on their heels by playing a team game, heavy on speed and physicality, with some clutch scoring and stellar goaltending thrown in for good measure.
For those unfamiliar with the Finnish game, that is the exact game plan the Finns used to get to the gold-medal game four years ago in Turin. It is also how Finland reached the final of the 2004 World Cup before losing to the host Canadians.
"They have a lot of energy guys," fourth-line forward David Backes said. "They also have a ton of skill, so we need to make sure we get pucks behind them and not feeding their offense by turning pucks over in the neutral zone.
"They've got the talent to beat anyone in this tournament. We need to make sure we are outworking them to go along with the talent we have in our lineup. I think if we win the work ethic battle, we like our chances. If we don't win the work ethic battle, then it is up in the air and anything can happen."
The Finns will play a passive 1-2-2 forecheck, hoping the lead forechecker can force the American defenders into turnovers. In the offensive zone, the Finns will cycle and try to punish the American defenders. They will also activate their defense more than most teams the Americans have faced in this tournament.
Both Kimmo Timonen, a member of the all-tournament team in Turin, and Joni Pitkanen are world-class offensive defensemen.
"They are really active in the zone from what we have seen," American defensemen Erik Johnson said. "Timonen likes to go back door, and Pitkanen he likes to get on the offense, too. That will be a little more of a challenge because we have only played Canada that really likes to involve their D."
But, in the end, the Americans know it will be intensity and effort -- not Xs and Os -- that will determine who wins this likely showdown of smash-mouth hockey
"They have great speed, they are going to be a great transition team and they are going to be a tough team," said American defenseman Jack Johnson, who doesn't mind the rough-and-tumble going. It's going to be a great game. It's just going to be two tough teams going at it."