The Vancouver Olympics reached their midpoint at the end of competition Saturday, but for hockey fans the big tournament begins in earnest today. If January 30 was Hockey Day in Canada, February 21 is Hockey Day on Planet Earth, with a mouth-watering tripleheader featuring some of the best rivalries in the sport. Consecutively we will see Czech Republic-Russia, Canada-USA, and Sweden-Finland, each a geographic, political, and sporting rivalry dating back as far as you care to look. Coincidentally, the three games will, in order, represent rematches of the last three Olympic Gold Medal games.
The feature game on this continent will be the Canada-USA match-up. They remind me of the Oilers-Flames rivalry of the 1980s and early 90s: pretty one-sided, but the underdogs are just good enough and pull off the upset just often enough to add fear, loathing, and perhaps a little respect to the mix.
The two squads have played four previous games in the five-ring circus within North America, all south of the 49th parallel, and all having direct bearing on the gold and silver medal. In Lake Placid in 1932, they met twice, with Canada winning the first 2-1 in overtime and holding on through three overtime periods for a 2-2 tie in the final game which sewed up gold for Canada, silver for USA. In 1960 they met late in the medal round in Squaw Valley, with the host USA riding a 39-save performance from tournament hero Jack McCartan to a monumental 2-1 upset. The Americans then stunned the Soviets in similar manner to win a shock gold medal, with Canada on the second step of the podium.
The two rivals wound up in opposite pools in Lake Placid 1980 and Calgary 1988 and never did cross paths, though they played numerous pre-tournament games against each other under the national amateur team format of the day. By Salt Lake City 2002, everything had changed: NHL pros participated in a true best-on-best format, and the round robin standings format had been replaced by a medal round featuring sudden death games. The two best teams in that tourney, Canada and USA collided in the gold medal final with everything on the line, with Canada emerging with a convincing 5-2 win and their first gold medal in half a century.
2010 marks a 50th anniversary of a different type, as it has been that long since USA has beaten Canada at any Olympics. Canada recorded victories at Innsbruck 1964 (8-6), Grenoble 1968 (3-2), Sarajevo 1984 (4-2), Nagano 1998 (4-1) as well as Salt Lake City, while the two squads skated to a 3-3 tie in Lillehamer 1994.
"Best on best" the two have met just twice in the Olympics, Canada winning both. They have a much longer history in the Canada/World Cup, where once again Canada holds the upper hand with an 8-3-1 record. All 3 American wins came in the same tourney, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, which they won in a three-game final to avenge a two-game sweep at the hands of the Canadians in 1991. Otherwise Canada has consistently held the upper hand with a long series of usually-close and always-hard-fought victories.
So ... what does all this history have to do with today's game?
"Nothing" would seem the default answer. It's a new day, a new game, with (mostly) new teams. Only 6 players return from Salt Lake City: Canada's core leadership group - Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, and Jarome Iginla - all participated on the winning side, while only Brian Rafalski and Chris Drury survive to fight another day with Team USA.
It's a brash young in-your-face crew that Brian Burke has assembled stateside. It only seems that half the team is named Ryan -- Miller, Suter, Whitney, Kesler, Malone and Callahan. If only Bobby Ryan's parents had got with the program and named their kid Ryan Ryan.
David Backes has been an absolute killer in the first two games, and it's hard to imagine he'll bring anything less than his A game today, given how he targeted and fought three separate Team Canada players -- Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, and Rick Nash -- in the weeks following the naming of the teams. Backes is big, fast, and downright nasty, but is hardly unique on a team that includes the likes of Dustin Brown, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Ryans Kesler, Malone and Callahan. The rest of the forward corps is devoted to speed and skill, featuring Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Paul Stastny and the sublime Zach Parise. The apparent weakness of the club is on the back end, where young blueliners like Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, and Ryan Whitney might be vulnerable to the endless cycle of elite forwards that Canada can throw over the boards. Surely USA's game plan will be to attack hard on the forecheck and keep the game in the Canadian end of the rink as much as possible. The key for Canada is to withstand the pressure, take some punishment, and get that puck moving in the right direction where they can exploit that young defence.
USA's hopes ultimately ride with Ryan Miller, the Sabres backstop who has been generating Vezina Trophy buzz until hitting a bit of a bad spell just prior to the games. His return to form is central to any hopes the Americans have, both in this game and in the tournament as a whole. Similarly, Canada counts on Brodeur, the accomplished veteran who himself had a shaky patch prior to the Games. Above and beyond stopping the puck, both goalies have an important role to play in fielding and moving the disc and alleviating as much of the forechecking pressure as possible.
Today's superb tripleheader will not eliminate anybody, but there are more than bragging rights on the line. Seeding for the medal round will be determined today, with two of the losers being relegated to a sudden-death qualifying game on Tuesday to get into Wednesday's quarter-finals.