For the third consecutive major international tournament, the U.S. and Canada will meet in the championship game, this time with the entire world watching.
On Jan. 4, Pittsburgh natives John Gibson, J.T. Miller and Barrett Kaib led the U.S. Under-17 team to a 2-1 victory over Team Ontario at the 2010 World Under-17 Challenge.
One night later, the Americans shocked the Canadians in overtime, 6-5, in the championship game of the World Junior Championship.
Both of those victories came on Canadian soil.
If the United States wants to make it 3-for-3 over Canada in Vancouver, they will need another sparkling effort between the pipes from Ryan Miller, because Sidney Crosby
and Team Canada have found their offensive chemistry in the three contests since the Americans pulled off a stunning 5-3 victory over Canada in the preliminary round.
As fresh as that night seems, much has changed for both of these teams since that epic meeting on Feb. 21, which was the most watched hockey game in 36 years.
Following the loss to the Americans, Canada head coach Mike Babcock made a switch in goal. He replaced Martin Brodeur, arguably the greatest goaltender of all-time, and the netminder on Canada’s 2002 gold medal winning squad, with Roberto Luongo.
Hockey experts around the country debated the logic of benching an icon such as Brodeur, but three wins in three tries since justifies Babcock’s decision.
Babcock didn’t stop there with his changes. He tinkered with all of his units except the San Jose trio of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. His line-juggling has been rewarded with 18 goals in three contests.
Crosby, who scored against the Americans in the first matchup, has found success at both ends of the rink with his newest linemates, Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal. Crosby’s line picked up six points (3G-3A) their first game together against the Germans in the qualification round. Iginla and Crosby also had a huge game together in Canada’s 8-0 defeat of Norway on Feb. 16, when the Penguins captain set up all three of Iginla’s goals.
While any line featuring Crosby is always going to be dangerous, perhaps Canada’s most consistent line the past three games has been the one featuring Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and Dallas captain Brendan Morrow. Perry scored twice against the Russians on Wednesday night, while Getzlaf and Morrow each tallied on Friday versus Slovakia.
But the last thing the United States will be is intimidated of Canada’s offensive arsenal. With the way Miller is playing, Canada could bring back their 1972 Summit Series squad in their prime and STILL not find the back of the net.
Miller, whose .957 save percentage is the highest in the tournament, hasn’t allowed a goal in 111:38, or since Crosby sneaked a shot between his legs on a power play with 3:09 to play in the third period on Feb. 21.
Although Miller’s play has the U.S. undefeated, the Americans have also changed significantly since they first took on Canada.
No longer is the team considered an upstart, no-name squad. Thanks to that perfect 5-0 record, including a 6-1 trouncing of Finland in the semifinal round which included all six goals being scored within the first 13 minutes of the game, the United States now expects to win on Sunday.
Not only did the U.S. have their way with Finland on Friday, but a couple of American forwards who had yet to break out – Patrick Kane and Paul Stastny – gave glimpses of their world-class skill. Kane scored twice against the Finns, while Stastny tallied for the first time in the Games, and added an assist.
Factor in a red-hot Zach Parise, whose power-play marker on Friday gave him three goals in two games, and the United States finally has their best offensive players performing as such.
Expect the United States’ top line of Parise, Stastny and captain Jamie Langenbrunner to see a lot of Canada’s shutdown line featuring Rick Nash, Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews based upon the way they have dominated puck possession the past couple games.
Defensively, two pairing have emerged as capable of matching wits against Canada’s cycling game.
Orpik, who has spent the entire tournament paired with Los Angeles blueliner Jack Johnson, did a masterful job against his teammate, Crosby, in the first U.S.-Canada matchup.
Orpik has yet to allow an even-strength goal during the tournament. With his bruising style and underrated foot speed, expect Orpik to once again get the call to defend Crosby.
Brian Rafalski, who scored the opening two goals against Canada on Feb. 21, and Nashville’s Ryan Suter, comprise the American’s other shutdown pairing. Expect to see those two a lot against the San Jose trio and the Perry-Getzlaf-Morrow unit.Prediction:
With all due respect to Canada’s Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury
, who we all cannot wait to continue cheering for when the Penguins’ season resumes against Buffalo on Tuesday, it will be Orpik and the Americans standing on the gold-medal platform early Sunday evening. We’ll take Team USA in another thriller, 4-2. For the sake of fairness, let’s pencil Crosby in for one of the Canadian goals.