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Canadian defense suffocates US scoring attack in Olympic semifinal

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

With the way Canada played, it would have taken a mistake -- a big one -- to lose the semifinal matchup to Team USA. They didn't and took advantage of a US breakdown in the defensive zone in the second period for the game's only goal. Jamie Benn, perhaps an unlikely hero, got to the area the US never could in the other end and tipped home a perfect Jay Bouwmeester pass. That was all it took. 1-0.

It was the kind of goal that had to win a game like that. It probably isn't going to be a memorable goal because most scored in the first two minutes of the second period don't become memorable, even in a 1-0 game. The lasting image from this game may be Canadians swarming around the puck and never giving the US a sniff.

Though each team had more than 30 shots in the game, it didn't often seem as close as the final score would indicate. Aggressiveness from Canada's forwards in all zones led to countless US turnovers in every zone. Steady, calm play from the Canadian defense kept a US scoring attack that had been the Olympics' most efficient completely at bay.

Beyond the opening 10 minutes, with a frenetic pace and back-and-forth action, American chances of any kind of quality were few and far between. When they were decent enough, Carey Price calmly shut the door. Early saves on a Phil Kessel rush and ascreened point shot from John Carlson helped Canada when the US was buzzing. Another save on Zach Parise on an American power play from point-blank range also kept the US from getting any momentum.

On the other side, Jonathan Quick gave the US every opportunity to win the game with save after save and a final total of 36 stops against the best forwards in the world.

But it all comes back to the suffocating, aggressive style the Canadians were able to employ against a US scoring attack that hadn't been challenged like that to date.

It wasn't really a lack of effort from the US. Canada just was on the puck more frequently and forced the US into careless decisions through the neutral zone. That stalled out a US transition game that the team had been living off of for a lot of the tournament.

Duncan Keith and Shea Weber led a stingy Canadian defense Friday. (USATSI)
Duncan Keith and Shea Weber led a stingy Canadian defense Friday. (USATSI)

Though the conversation coming into the game was Canada's questionable scoring so far in the tournament, they haven't really needed it. The defending gold medalist has allowed just three goals in five games at the Olympics. Granted, until Friday, the Canadians hadn't played many heavy-hitting offensive teams, but that's what made the semifinal performance so impressive.

Canada allowed 31 shots on goal in the game, but how many of those came from the middle of the ice? Not many. How many odd-man rushes did the US have in the game? Two, maybe.

With all of the superstar scorers Canada had up front from Sidney Crosby to Martin St. Louis and everyone in between, Mike Babcock's team committed to a style that can win on the big ice. Built on a foundation of speed and aggressiveness, Canada shrunk the ice by getting all five skaters engaged in all zones.

Even on a wider surface, no team has found the extra room to work consistently at five-on-five, which speaks so well of Canada's play without the puck. There were so few puck battles lost and so many loose pucks won. It was hard for an American forward to take hold of the puck without feeling the breath of a Canadian in pursuit within seconds.

What's most remarkable is that Canada was able to play that style at the pace they did. The US was never able to use its speed advantageously because Canada was right there with them.

It was a total team win for Canada as the forwards committed to the back-check early, made plays in the neutral zone that made the Americans uncomfortable and challenged Quick often. They forced the Americans to play the game at the pace Canada wanted. When teams do that internationally, it is very difficult for their opponents to handle.

As well as the forwards played, Canada's defense was just remarkable and they were able to roll six of the seven dressed the entire game. Shea Weber played just 21 minutes to lead the Canadian roster. Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Alex Pietrangelo all played right around 20 minutes, while Jay Bouwmeester and Marc-Edouard Vlasic still took semi-regular shifts and Dan Hamhuis was stapled to the bench. Being able to roll like that kept them fresh.

On the other side, Ryan Suter played 26:11 and looked gassed at times late in that game. Even as a big-minutes player for the Minnesota Wild, when facing an onslaught of all-stars, it can be tiring.

What's scary is that Canada has the reigning Norris Trophy winner, P.K. Subban, sitting in the press box and they haven't really needed him. It's even justifiable. The defense has scored seven of Canada's 14 goals at the Olympics so far, with Doughty and Weber splitting those tallies.

Canada will now look ahead to a very skilled Swedish team that was able to get through a very tough Finnish defense twice in the earlier semifinal Friday. If Canada plays as it did against the US, it's hard to see any result other than gold.

For the US, it has to recover from a rather bitter defeat and play for bronze Saturday. The Americans still have some history to make. A US men's national team hasn't won medals in back-to-back Olympics since 1956-60 and hasn't won a medal of any color outside of North America since 1972. There's much to play for, but it's not the game Team USA wanted to be playing in.

The Americans will eventually look back on this tournament and unlike in 2010, when victory was only a shot away, wonder what more they could have done.

There was one near miss. Paul Stastny jammed at a loose puck and pushed it under Price, but it skittered through the crease and inches from the far post. If that puck goes in, it's a different game, but it didn't and the result was deserved.

What may stick in the minds of Team USA is how much clearly better Canada was in that game and how as the talent gap narrows between the two countries, the Canadians have once again taken away a gold medal from the US, only this time a game earlier and in a more decisive fashion.

The game lived up to the hype, but it was Canada that surpassed expectations and the Americans who didn't rise to the moment.

Another chapter in this great rivalry is closed and as the NHL goes back to make a decision on its future at the Olympics, we're left to wonder if we'll ever see something as good as the last two Olympics has given us.

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