Written By: Mike Ulatoski
#1 SEED, UNITED STATES (4-0-0-0) vs. #4 SEED, FINLAND (3-0-1-0)
What to Watch For:
This game will be played like a Stanley Cup Playoff game, as a trip to the gold-medal game is on the line. Both sides have skill and physicality, and this game will be more about which side can impose its physical will on the other, especially late in the game. “We need to make sure we are outworking them to go along with the talent we have in our lineup,” said David Backes. “I think if we win the work-ethic battle, we like our chances.”
Even if one of these teams wins the work-ethic battle, the game could still be close. This game will be a showcase of two great goaltenders – Team USA’s Ryan Miller, and Finland’s Miikka Kiprusoff.
Last game - United States defeated Switzerland 2-0 and Finland defeated Czech Republic 2-0 in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.
United States – The Americans have yet to lose in this tournament, but they refuse to get too far ahead of themselves and look to the next opponent. They continue to have the mindset of “one game at a time”, and Coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke have done a great job of keeping this team focused on winning the next game. They aren’t focused on anything else happening outside of that ice. They are focused on the task at hand and they know that they can play with anyone in this tournament. If they hope to get to the gold-medal game, they know that they need to get better in several areas – most notably on the power play and with their play in the neutral zone, something that was lacking against the Swiss on Wednesday.
Despite the fact that the Americans got the game-winner on the power play in Wednesday’s quarterfinal game against the Swiss, they have struggled on the man advantage. In four games, the Americans have earned 16 power-play opportunities and scored four goals (one in each game). On the other hand, Finland has seven goals. How bad was the American power-play against the Swiss? “We were wondering if we could just decline the penalties and pick up the flag like they do in football,” Backes joked.
Against the Canadians, the U.S. dominated the play between the blue lines. They were physical, maintained puck control, and they dictated the flow of the game in the neutral zone. They were able to infiltrate the Canadian defensive zone, and that led to their success. In their last game, it was a different story. There were some power plays where the U.S. couldn’t even get the puck across the blue line. There’s no doubt Coach Wilson addressed this concern during practice, but we’ll see how well it translates to success in a game.
While the power play is struggling, the U.S. penalty kill has been outstanding, thanks in part to the defensive play of forwards Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan (both of the NY Rangers). These two have been terrific, playing great zone-defense in their own zone and sacrificing their bodies to block shots. In their previous game against Switzerland, 3 consecutive shots were blocked on the power play; Drury blocked one and Callahan blocked one. If Finland gets on the power play today, watch how many U.S. players drop down to the ice to block an oncoming shot. When the U.S. is killing a penalty, pucks rarely get to the net.
One player to keep an eye on is Ryan Kesler. In many ways, Kesler symbolizes the identity of this U.S. team. When the Americans have been at their best in this tournament, they crashed and banged, showed incredible patience and tons of resilience. A little sand, a little swagger … a lot like Kesler.
Finland – Finland plays a very similar style to that of the U.S. This is a group of talented and hardworking forwards, who go after loose pucks and finish their checks, and they succeed when they get the defense involved in offensive zone. They have been struggling when playing 5-on-5, however. The Finns haven’t scored an even-strength goal in their past two games. They won Wednesday’s quarterfinal against the Czechs with a power-play goal by Niklas Hagman and an empty-net tally. Three days earlier, in the final group game against rival Sweden, the Finns were shut out. So, scoring is a big issue, especially because Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu have yet to manage a goal. But, it doesn’t slow this team down.
“We won’t score four, five goals against top countries, so we have to play defense well,” Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen said. “We have to snuff them out, maybe let them score one goal, maximum two goals; and then we have a chance to win the game.” Finland can play this way because Kiprusoff has been terrific in net. He has two shutouts through four games and leads the tournament in save percentage.
Finland has 18 NHL players on their roster, including Kiprusoff (Calgary Flames), Selanne (Anaheim Ducks), Koivu (Anaheim, formerly Montreal), Mikko Koivu (Minnesota Wild, and Saku’s younger brother), and Olli Jokinen (NY Rangers).
These two teams have a history in international hockey, as they have met 11 times in the Winter Games. The Americans have won six times, including a win in the 1980 gold-medal game. Finland has won three times, including the most recent 4-3 win in the quarterfinals in 2006, and the other two games have ended in ties.
This will be a bone-crunching game on both sides, with two of the most physical teams in the whole tournament. “It’s always kind of fun to play (physical games), as well,” said Finland center Mikko Koivu. “That’s the way it should be.”
Look for players on both teams to go hard on every shift, fly after loose pucks, and finish every check. Combine that physicality with the offensive skills of both teams and the spectacular goaltending, and this has the makings of one of the best games of the tournament. The Americans will need Ryan Kesler – whom Wilson has referred to as “a warrior” and who has been the team’s most consistently “on” player – to be at his best. Kesler plays with the mentality that he has one shift for the rest of his life: fighting for loose pucks, going hard every second, making big-time plays, playing with tireless effort. Those are the kinds of qualities that the Americans will need if they are going to advance in this tournament.
Team USA was my pick to win silver, and they are on the verge of something extraordinary. This group is young and aggressive, and has so much momentum heading into this game. They are focused entirely on the task at hand, Finland; not “who do we play next”, but “who do we play now”. The U.S. forwards will be aggressive on the forecheck, which will create turnovers in the Finland defensive zone. The U.S. wins the work-ethic battle, highlighted by Kesler, Drury, Bobby Ryan, captain Jamie Langenbrunner and David Backes. Ryan Miller will be terrific once again between the pipes. Finland will keep it close with their aggressiveness, goaltending, and offensive ability. But I predict a USA victory.
Team USA wins, 4-2.
Shot Calling - Paul Stastny – 1 goal, 1 assist