The fact that the U.S. has looked the stronger team coming in means nothing in this rivalry. As I’ve noted many times, at this point the match-up is 95% psychological and the teams are looking for that 5% separation any place they can find it.
Pierre got one thing right (if you managed to wade through his attempts to compare every female player with an NHL player, because obviously one can only understand women in reference to men): this is a speed and precision U.S. squad versus a “sledgehammer” of a Canadian team. The Canadians will knock you into the boards until they’ve worn you down, and if they get frustrated enough they’ll also just punch you in the face. They have the skill players; they just don’t always utilize them in that role. Normally I reject the false dichotomy between skill and physicality, but a concern for the U.S. is at least one of their lines is too pretty. The Decker/Kessel/Coyne combo is not as adept on the defensive end (and it is paired with slightly weaker defenders) and its success still hinges too much on individual one-on-one virtuosity. They’ve only played together for a month because of Kessel’s injury and are still gelling, which is crucial for players who rely on finesse. This line has been productive in the past and could still be, based on its pure talent level, but if the players are getting their butts knocked around the rink they won’t get to show it. The Knight and Duggan lines will be fine and can contribute significantly if they don’t let themselves be caught up in silly battles. I’m looking at you, Jocelyne Lamoureux.
The Canadians must draw a significant number of penalties if they are to succeed. They may still be getting used to the new type of power play Dineen has instituted (yet another reason you don’t want to change coaches this close to the Olympics), but it’s their best chance of using their offensive players to full advantage. The Poulin-Johnston line remains the key to their even strength scoring; it would be nice if other lines stepped up here. Spooner should eventually be rewarded for her dynamism, likewise Daoust (but she must leave her gloves on). The Agosta-Marciano line’s ability hinges too much on which Wickenheiser shows up to the game. Although the Canadians don’t want to leave themselves vulnerable to odd-player rushes against a team with the pure speed of the Americans, they are also a better club when their defenders become involved in the offense. Larocque in particular is a plus match-up on both sides of the puck and they need Fortino and Rougeau on offense as well. All indications are that Szabados will start in goal. She had a tendency in the Finland game to look down a second after the puck had hit her, and one long clearance almost snuck by, but she is still the best option they have. The U.S. has the edge there, as they have all year.
A low-scoring game favors the U.S., since as we saw with Finland the Canadians don’t like to be kept off the score sheet and can get chippy. A high-scoring game also favors the U.S. since they have open ice superiority. So on paper the U.S. wins here. But we’ve seen a better U.S. team lose before. A mental error early in the game or a late penalty could significantly turn the momentum, which is everything in this evenly-matched series.
Waking up at 4:30 a.m. never looked so good.