SOCHI, Russia — More than 19,000 kilometres separate Vancouver and Sochi, and four years have passed since Sidney Crosby scored his golden goal.
Team Canada and the United States meet again at the Olympics on Friday, but almost everything — from the size of the rink and the names of the goaltenders to the expectations and the stage — has changed since their last meeting at the 2010 Games.
Most importantly, it’s not for the gold medal but rather a spot in the final.
“It seems like we were on a crash course to meet those guys,” U.S. centre David Backes said. “And we get them in the semifinal instead of the final, which would have been a little more storybook.”
Throw out the storybook and throw out history. Based strictly on a tournament the Americans have rolled through, they look like the favourites against Canada for the first time at the Olympics since NHL players began participating.
Only Backes and his U.S. teammates are embracing the underdog role and trying to deflate high expectations, while Drew Doughty and Canada want to pump themselves up.
“We don’t see ourselves as the underdog,” Doughty said. “I think both teams are really evenly matched. I don’t know who I would give the upper hand to at this point. But I’m obviously more confident in my team than theirs.”
Confidence was brimming from both sides of this rivalry showdown a day before they met for a spot in the gold-medal game against the winner of the Sweden-Finland semifinal.
It’s easy to see where it’s coming from for the Americans, who have outscored opponents 20-6 through four games. While Canadian coach Mike Babcock pointed out that it has been “easy” for the U.S. to score, mostly against Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, Backes doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think it’s come easy at all, we’ve had to work for everything we’ve gotten, second chances, rebounds, dirty goals,” he said. “A couple of them on the rush, but not tic-tac-toe. Guys are driving the net, making plays. Everything we’ve gotten we’ve worked for and we plan to work for everything we’re going to get in the future.”
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said there’s no “secret” to what his team has done to lead the tournament in scoring. The victory over Russia featured two power-play goals, and the rest of the production has been spread around, whether it be Phil Kessel’s five goals in pretty fashion or Dustin Brown’s two with some grease on them.
In looking at the deep Canadian roster, Bylsma doesn’t want his team to try to go chance-for-chance and try to outscore a talented opponent. Instead, the plan is to continue to be difficult to play against.
“They have more skill and they’re a deeper team but we’re a harder team to play against,” Bylsma said. “We’re going to match up and go toe-to-toe with them that way. It doesn’t mean we’re going to back down, it doesn’t mean we’re going to play a shell and let them come at us and give them 50 shots and try and win with 15.”
If that kind of script emerges again as it did for Canada in its quarter-final victory over Latvia, Babcock and his players like their chances. The feeling around the pre-tournament favourite is that even after scoring 13 goals through four games, more are bound to come if quality opportunities keep piling up.
“I think we’re going to get more opportunities than we’ve been getting,” said Matt Duchene, who will replace the injured John Tavares in Canada’s lineup. “And there’s so much skill on this team, I know it’s only a matter of time before the dam bursts and we start scoring a lot of goals.”
If Canada scores goals at the pace its players do during an NHL regular season, there’s no way the U.S. can keep up. That’s one thing the Canadians are hoping for by not playing a European team — that this will be a bit more of a North American-style game.
“I know a lot of people are worried about us not scoring and stuff like that, but against an North American team, I think this is where we really pick it up and show how we can score,” Doughty said. “Guys are going to step up to the plate and put pucks in the net. And they’re going to have guys that will be flying, too. We match up really well against each other. I think it’s going to be the best game of the tournament.”
But, again, this is not Vancouver. The ice is still 15 feet wider at Bolshoy Ice Dome than it was at B.C. Place four years ago, meaning it cannot possibly be the exact same brand of hockey that produced that legendary gold-medal game.
That’s not to say the style of play won’t be a little different — for Canada and the U.S. — in facing a more like-minded opponent that likes to move quickly and try to score in transition.
“You get a little less time out there,” Canada’s Ryan Getzlaf said. “A team like that is going to forecheck, and they’re going to skate.”
This U.S. team was built to skate, as general manager David Poile wanted to construct a group tailored to the big ice. Undefeated through four games, that seems like a major reason why winger Patrick Kane thinks “for sure we’re better than the 2010 team.”
That 2010 team had tournament MVP Ryan Miller stealing the show in goal, but this time around he’s Jonathan Quick’s backup. Likewise, the man who was in net for Canada when it won gold, Roberto Luongo, will be on the bench Friday watching starter Carey Price.
The Americans have a little intel on Price beyond this tournament and his previous international experience, which included beating the U.S. at the 2007 world junior championship. But Montreal Canadiens teammate Max Pacioretty has more praise for Price than advice on how to score against him.
“He doesn’t have too many weaknesses, so I’m not going to tell the boys too much obviously,” Pacioretty after practice Thursday. “Just like any goalie you got to try and not let him see the puck. It’s the only way you’re going to beat him.”
The same goes for Quick, who has a couple of Los Angeles Kings teammates on the other side in Doughty and Jeff Carter. They saw and benefited from what Quick did to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during the Kings’ Stanley Cup run in 2012.