4:12 PM CST, February 20, 2014
SOCHI, Russia — When these are the rivalries — Canada facing the U.S. in one semifinal of the Olympic hockey tournament after Sweden plays Finland in the other — Xs and O's and detailed analysis have less to do with the outcome than pure, unfettered emotion.
Asked whether the U.S. will try to take the middle of the ice away from Canada, which has won all four of its games despite modest production from its forwards, center David Backes laughed and insisted the question was too technical. This is mind over matchups, and may the strongest-willed win.
"For me, it's execution and playing the hardest and sticking to the game plan and sacrificing for each other," said Backes, whose rugged play and ability to create offense in contested situations have given Team USA an enviably balanced offense and the tough-to-play-against identity its executives coveted.
"The little tactical things now and then, that's up to the coaching staff. Taking away the middle, slowing them down, making them play in their end — all those things contribute to a great defensive game that keeps them off the scoreboard and hopefully leads to us winning."
For standout defenseman Drew Doughty of Canada, this is the only reason he will even briefly forget the bonds he forged with U.S. winger Dustin Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick as members of the Kings. When Doughty sees them Friday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome he will not see friends but foes who stand between him and the chance to play for another gold medal Sunday.
"We want those bragging rights for the rest of the season. For the rest of your life, really," said Doughty, who helped Canada defeat the U.S. in an overtime thriller in the gold-medal game at the Vancouver Games four years ago.
"I'm really close with both those guys, Quickie and Brownie. It's going to be fun. I want to beat them so badly. We're big rivals, us and the U.S., especially after the last Olympics."
Few rivalries run as deep as No. 1-seeded Sweden, the only team unbeaten in regulation, and neighbor Finland, long considered a lesser hockey power even though it won three medals in the four previous Olympic tournaments that included NHL players. Finland, led by 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, 21-year-old Mikael Granlund and the clutch goaltending of Tuukka Rask, beat Russia last week.
"I think now it's a healthy, friendly rivalry whereas they used to look up to us as Big Brother," Swedish winger Daniel Alfredsson said Thursday.
"They've had tremendous success here in the Olympics. We've met them pretty much every time, and I don't think it's so much big brother-little brother anymore. It's more healthy rivals that are very proud of their hockey team, and also really happy to represent their country. They know how much it means."
Being technical for a bit, Doughty said Canada's best hope lies in eroding Quick's confidence.
"When he gets hot, when he makes some big saves early, he seems to become unbeatable," Doughty said. "And that's why we've got to get one early on him. The only way we're going to score on him is we've got to get pucks up high and we've got to get screens in front and tips. He's going to make the easy saves every time. So it's going to be a big challenge for us."
To take away the advantage Canada has at center, even after it lost John Tavares to a knee injury, U.S. Coach Dan Bylsma is likely to match the line of Brown, Backes and Ryan Callahan against the Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Patrice Bergeron line. Crosby also will see plenty of shutdown defenseman Ryan Suter.
Bylsma can manipulate the matchups because the U.S., the designated home team, will have the last line change. But as he noted, there's more to monitor besides Crosby, who scored the golden goal in Vancouver.
"If you just think the goal is to match up against Sidney Crosby you'd be missing another nine really good forwards out there," Bylsma said. "And that may be the difference in the game."
The difference in both semifinals could be the random carom of the puck off a skate or stick, or which player best puts NHL friendships aside when the situation demands it.
"These are the fun ones," Ducks and Canada center Ryan Getzlaf said. "This is why we came here."
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