Sunday, December 10, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Old rivalries spice up men's Olympic hockey semis

SOCHI, Russia — When these are the rivalries — the United States facing Canada in one semifinal of the men's hockey tournament after Sweden plays Finland in the other — X's and O's and detailed analysis have less to do with the outcome than pure, unfettered emotion.

Asked whether the United States will try to take the middle of the ice away from Canada, which has won all four of its tournament games despite modest production from its forwards, American center David Backes of the Blues laughed and insisted the question was too technical. This is mind over matchups, and may the strongest-willed win.

"For me, it's execution and playing the hardest and sticking to the game plan and sacrificing for each other," said Backes, whose rugged play and ability to create offense in contested situations have helped given the United States a balanced offense and the tough-to-play-against identity its executives coveted.

No offense to the rich and emotional hockey history forged by Canada and the former Soviet Union, but the United States is now Canada's No. 1 rival, Lightning star Steven Stamkos said.

"I think even more now, with the success the American team has had, I think that's the bigger rivalry, to be honest," said Stamkos, who would be playing for Canada if not for a broken right leg. "You have all North American players, a lot of guys who are really familiar with themselves, so I think that brings a new mentality in. It's going to be another great game."

The countries played for gold at the 2002 Olympics, with Canada coming out on top. In 2010, the United States bested Canada in preliminary play, but Canada beat the United States for gold.

Few rivalries run as deep as the one between Sweden, the only team unbeaten in regulation in the tournament, and neighbor Finland, long considered a lesser hockey power even though it won three medals in the four previous Olympic tournaments that included NHL players. Finland, led by 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, 21-year-old Mikael Granlund and the clutch goaltending of Tuukka Rask, eliminated Russia on Wednesday.

"I think now it's a healthy, friendly rivalry whereas they used to look up to us as big brother," Swedish wing Daniel Alfredsson of the Red Wings said.

The difference in both semifinals could be the random carom of the puck off a skate or stick, or which player best puts NHL friendships aside when the situation demands it.

"These are the fun ones," Canada and Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf said. "This is why we came here."

Times staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report.

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