Turns out a shared border and the occasional gold-medal game matchup can do terrific things for a hockey rivalry.
Oh, USA and Canada competed ferociously long before colliding for the championship at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, but that game — which ended when Penguins center Sidney Crosby scored in overtime to give Canada the victory — ratcheted intensity and emotions to levels that hadn’t been reached previously.
The U.S. team and Canada will collide again today at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia. And while this one will be for the opportunity to battle the Sweden-Finland semifinal survivor for a gold medal Sunday, not for the top prize itself, passions in both countries figure to spike in a way they haven’t to this point of the tournament.
The Penguins locker room is no exception.
Of the 12 players who participated in a practice Thursday at Consol Energy Center, goalie Tomas Vokoun was the only non-North American. And if Vokoun doesn’t have a strong rooting interest in how the game today plays out, he probably is the only one.
“There are a lot of Canadians and Americans in here,” said center Brandon Sutter of Red Deer, Alberta.
That explains why the next chapter in the USA-Canada rivalry has dominated locker-room conversations in the past two days, since the matchup was set and the NHL’s Olympic break concluded.
“Since we got back, about all guys are talking about is how the beach was and the Olympics,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen of Virginia, Minn.
Players are so caught up in the game that assistant coach Todd Reirden bumped up a workout to 10 a.m. today at Southpointe so that it will end well before the puck drops in Sochi.
Locker-room predictions break along nationalistic lines. Players who pronounce the final letter in the alphabet “zed” are picking Canada; the rest expect the U.S. team to prevail.
No one, though, seems to anticipate a lopsided victory for his side. Some acknowledge that the outcome might be as tough as a coin toss to call with certainty, which could be why the default prediction tends to be the country in which the player was born.
“Even if I don’t expect Canada, I’m saying Canada,” said left winger Tanner Glass of Regina, Saskatchewan.
Players said there has been little trash-talking and no wagers to speak of, although some said they anticipate a rise today in both. Niskanen, for one, seems willing to connect with any teammate prepared to bet against the U.S. team.
“I’m interested in some kind of wager,” he said. “I just have to find somebody to take it. I don’t know if the Canadians are feeling too confident.”
Players said that bets figure to be for stakes such as a meal, rather than money or something designed to embarrass the loser, like having to wear the jersey of the winning team for a day. Glass, though, said a friend outside the organization made an interesting proposal for whoever’s team loses the game.
“He said he’ll name his first-born son ‘Tanner’ if I’ll name my second-born son ‘Matt,’ ” Glass said. “I don’t know if he’s being serious, but he might be.”
The U.S. team has been, by many accounts, the most consistently impressive team in the tournament, while Canada has not been as prolific offensively as expected.
“USA looks like they’re firing on all cylinders,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi of Syosset, N.Y. “I think their team game looks good — not just the individual players who are, of course, incredibly talented — but they really look like they’re playing as a team.”
Even the most efficient, detail-oriented club can be thwarted by a hot goaltender for 60 minutes. Kristers Gudlevskis of Latvia nearly did that Wednesday to Canada in the quarterfinals, before the Canadians pulled out a 2-1 victory.
The expected starters, Jonathan Quick of the USA and Canada’s Carey Price, are capable of single-handedly turning the game in his team’s favor.
“It’s a one-game elimination,” Glass said. “So they can steal it.”
Of course, any number of factors could be decisive. Sutter pointed to penalties and discipline, Scuderi to efficient execution. The only thing on which we all agree is that the game should be compelling.
“It’s going to be a great matchup,” Reirden said. “And something I’m sure we’ll hear about in our locker room for the rest of the year.”
NOTES — Injured forwards Beau Bennett, Joe Vitale, Taylor Pyatt and Chris Conner worked out on the ice Thursday with conditioning coach Mike Kadar before the regular practice. … Defenseman Kris Letang, who is recovering from a stroke, watched part of practice for the second day in a row.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.