Analysis: Canada beat U.S. at its own game
SOCHI -- For four games here, the United States made its opponents nervous.
With a bevy of speedy forwards, the U.S. forced teams like Slovenia and Slovakia to start on their heels, which ultimately cost them dearly. Even powerful Russia was caught flat-footed a few times in their epic preliminary-round encounter, won by the United States in a shootout. In the quarterfinal, the Czech Republic had no answers for the group of fleet-footed forwards at the disposal of American coach Dan Bylsma.
On Friday, though, Canada was a far more difficult nut to crack. The Canadian team doesn't panic. It has the skill and speed to go toe-to-toe against any team in the 2014 Sochi Olympic field. It also has the pedigree of multiple championships at major international tournaments, including a gold medal four years ago, won against many of these same American players.
Most importantly, Canada had a game plan it knew would neutralize much of the American speed.
It worked to perfection, too, as Canada won a taut 1-0 game in the Olympic hockey tournament semifinal at Bolshoy Ice Dome. A deflection goal by Jamie Benn was the difference between the two teams as Canada advances to play Sweden for the gold Sunday (7 a.m. ET, NBC, CBC) while the Americans are relegated to a bronze-medal matchup Saturday against Finland (10 a.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC).
So, what was the game plan?
Canada "out-American'd" the Americans.
It used its speed and its relentlessness to put the United States on its heels after a few strong early shifts gave the Americans hope.
"That was as fast a game as I have ever been part of," Bylsma said.
It was the Canadians dictating the pace the majority of the time. As a result, the Americans were chasing a game for the first time in the tournament. They didn't enjoy it.
"We sat back. We were passive," American defenseman Ryan Suter said. "You can't play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn't take it to them at all."
"We had motivation. We just didn't take it on the ice."
Or perhaps the Canadians took it away from them.
When playing a Mike Babcock-coached team, two things are going to happen: His team forechecks like fiends and a game plan to have his team own the puck as much as possible is set in place. It is what he does with the Detroit Red Wings in the NHL and it was what he did Friday, using even more skilled players.
"Our backchecking was excellent [Friday], our forechecking was good," said Canadian goalie Carey Price, who was brilliant on the rare occasions the defense faltered. "We were trying to stay on the right side of the puck the whole night."
When the Canadians had the puck, they kept it as long as possible, enjoying long stretches of possession in the American zone. The Sidney Crosby line and the Ryan Getzlaf line were exceptionally good at this.
When they didn't have the puck, the Canadians jammed the neutral zone to stymie the American attack. When the puck was in the attacking zone for the Americans, the Canadians attacked with gusto trying to reclaim it.
"I felt the guys did a great job with the gaps through the neutral zone where they generate a lot of their speed," Getzlaf said.
"It seems like we had a tough time sustaining any pressure in their end," American forward Ryan Callahan said. "They outnumbered us in their zone, came up with it quick, and as we expected they were quick on transition."
Yet there still are times in every game that one team will have possession despite the opposition's best efforts. The United States did have control of the puck in the attacking zone enough to be dangerous occasionally, but they never could string together a series of shots.
"They did a good job of keeping us to the outside, limiting our chances and traffic in front of the net," American forward David Backes said. "We need to get to those hard areas and sustain that zone time to make sure we're getting bodies there. Didn't do that enough [Friday]."
Plus Price often dictated the pace of play in the Canada end. At the slightest hint of trouble Price would smother the puck and get a whistle, allowing his team to redouble its efforts.