Olympic hockey: Americans get the shot they wanted, facing Canada today in the semifinals



SOCHI, Russia — While 13 of his future Team USA players were in the midst of the most epic battle of their hockey-playing lives in 2010, Dan Bylsma sat on a folding chair in a jam-packed bar north of Pittsburgh, cheering like a fan for his country to bring home gold.

Then, all Bylsma could do was watch along with the rest of America as Phil Kessel’s overtime shot clanged off the crossbar, missing victory in Vancouver by sheer inches. And, minutes later, the puck popped out of a scrum in the U.S. zone and onto the stick of none other than Sidney Crosby.

“He got to the dot, and I started getting up,” Bylsma said. “I kind of had a feeling that once he got to the dot, it might find the back of the net, which it did. I felt the same disappointment as everyone else in that bar. I can’t say I felt happy for Sid.”

Bylsma’s thoughts immediately turned to 2014. The Americans would have to wait four years to get another shot at the Canadians in the Olympics, but it was clear during their 3-2 overtime defeat in the gold medal game that Team USA was making up ground fast on its neighbor to the north.

That night, Bylsma, then in his first full season as coach of the Penguins, never could have known that he would be the man calling the shots for the Americans in the Sochi Winter Games. But he was the guy Team USA general manager David Poile picked to lead this collection of the country’s top talent.

It was never going to be easy for an American team on the wider international ice surface, but the path to a gold medal seemed more difficult than ever in Sochi. They had to play the Russians in the second game on their home soil, and they passed that test with a thrilling 3-2 shootout victory Saturday. They played their best game yet Wednesday in the quarterfinals, beating the Czech Republic, 5-2.

Now, with the USA facing Canada at noon today in a semifinal game, they get the matchup they have been thinking about for what has seemed like forever. The winner will go on to play for gold Sunday against the winner of the other semifinal between Sweden and Finland. The losers will play Saturday for bronze.

“We didn’t know when it was going to come semifinal or final. But we got the game we wanted,” Bylsma said of facing Canada.

He was asked to explain why Team USA wanted Canada so badly. His answer came not with words but with an intense nodding of the head and a clinched grin. He let his players who were there that night in 2010 try to explain it.

Such as Zach Parise, captain of this team, who scored a goal with 24 seconds left that sent the game to overtime. Parise had not watched the replay of the game until a couple of weeks ago when he happened to see it on TV.

“Flashbacks,” Parise said. “Goose bumps. It brought you back to that moment when guys were thinking, ‘We have a shot at this.’ I’m sure that’s the same for all of us when we tied that game up.”

Just being able to think about knocking off the Canadians in the gold-medal game was a rush, not to mention on their home ice. Team Canada had beaten the United States in the final game for five of its seven Olympic golds, including in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, and they made it six of eight soon enough. For this generation of American hockey players, besting Canada was the dream.

“Growing up, Canada is always the team you have to beat,” Team USA defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “They produce a lot of great players. They are always the group you have to get through to win a championship. We kind of get used to it now. We know we’re going to play Canada if we want to accomplish our goal.”

The players call it a great rivalry. Of course, what would really establish that heated back-and-forth relationship is the U.S. team winning a big one and forcing the Canadians to live with it for a while.

“For us, it would be nice not to have to answer, ‘What was it like to lose to Canada again?’ ” Parise said. “I think until you do beat them on a stage like this in the Olympics, that’s the way it’s going to be. You’ve got Salt Lake and you’ve got Vancouver. We’ve got to get over that hump.”

To get there, conventional logic — and memories of 2010 — suggests that the Americans have to focus on containing Crosby. Playing against the conservative defensive styles of their opponents in these Olympics, Crosby has not scored a goal in four games. If one of the best players in the world was ever due for a big game, it’s now.

Bylsma was asked what he would do if he were Canada coach Mike Babcock to get Crosby going. Bylsma laughed.

“I haven’t seen Sidney Crosby in 12 days,” he said.

“You’re going to see him tomorrow. How would you fix it?” asked a reporter.

“I’m not fixing anything,” Bylsma said.

For the Americans, it will be about finding the right mix of clogging up the middle of the ice to frustrate the Canadians while still remaining aggressive and seeing the right times to strike. Given that it’s two North American teams, full of NHL talent, it should be the most entertaining game of the tournament thus far.

“We’re not going to try to match any team in this tournament skill-wise,” Bylsma said. “We didn’t do that with the Russians, and we’re not going to do that with the Canadians. I think they have more skill. They’re a deeper team. But we’re a harder team to play against.”


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 20, 2014 11:31 PM

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