Hockey: If Goaltending And Fatigue Are The Deciders, USA Should Have An Edge Over Canada In Sunday’s Gold Quest
It’s been an exhausting two weeks at these Olympic Games. And that’s just for us journalists. I can imagine what it’s been like for the hockey players. Sunday’s game between the USA and Canada is what we’ve all been waiting for, but I wonder how the legs of the Canadian and American players are feeling.
Sunday will mark the fourth game in six days for Canada, an older team than the USA. And in the final moments of Friday night’s 3-2 hold-on-tight semifinal victory over Slovakia, you wondered if the fatigue factor was having an effect. Slovakia was all over the Canadians and could easily have tied the game.
Team USA, meanwhile, will be playing just its third game over those same six days because it earned a bye into the quarterfinals after an undefeated preliminary round. Also, in the other semifinal, the Americans pounded Finland into first period submission and coasted the rest of the way. Goalie Ryan Miller even sat out the last half of the third period as head coach Ron Wilson wanted to give backup Tim Thomas his first Olympic minutes. Thomas was thrilled to have that opportunity, by the way.
Which brings us to another potential key factor in Sunday’s matchup. The USA should also have the goalie advantage. Miller has been the best goaltender at these Games, with a goals-against average of 1.04 and a save percentage of 95.37.
Canada struggled earlier in the tournament with Martin Brodeur in goal — he was there for last Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the USA — and has replaced him with Roberto Luongo. The move has paid off, with Luongo winning three straight games on the same ice where he usually makes a living with the Vancouver Canucks.
Still, Luongo looked a little out of sorts in giving up Friday’s two third-period goals to Slovakia — although to his credit, he was in shutdown mode over a final hectic two minutes and got just enough glove on a point-blank shot by Slovakia’s Pavel Demitra in the final seconds to save the game. And there’s no arguing that his GAA (1.75) and save % (91.95) is not as good as Miller’s. Also, Miller was in goal last Sunday, so he has already seen Canada once and beat them. Luongo has not faced the USA.
The goalie comparison was obviously on the mind of Canadian coach Mike Babcock after Friday’s game in his postgame remarks. Babcock spoke at length about the challenge of facing Miller.
“The best goalie always makes you nervous and I think that kid has been really good for them,” Babcock said. “We were too easy on Miller the first time. We won’t be this time. I thought we had tons of chances on him the last time but we didn’t have enough second chances.”
The mission on Sunday for Luongo and Canada?
“What you have got to do,” Babcock said, “is to get your goalie to play better than their goalie for one game.”
Given all of the above factors, the tendency might be to pick the USA as the winner. But anyone who has sat inside GM Place (renamed Canada Hockey Place for the Olympics) for the past two Canada games can tell you that the home crowd has been a huge factor. If the pressure of winning-or-else doesn’t get to the Canadian players, it’s hard to believe that the atmosphere won’t create enough energy inside them to overcome any fatigue.
The goaltending? That’s another issue. Babcock is right. Miller is making Canada — the whole country, not just the hockey team — incredibly nervous.