SOCHI, Russia — Let’s face it, Americans don’t usually give much thought to Canadian borders. You flash a smile and you’re through. We’re neighbors, eh? Not enemies.
But Friday night, in an Olympic hockey semifinal, Canada threw up an impenetrable wall around its net and its national game, defeating the United States, 1-0, in a contest that, depending on your national allegiance, was either wildly entertaining or maddeningly frustrating.
“They kept us out of their zone,” said James Van Riemsdyk, his succinct assessment of the intense 60 minutes as good as any.
The only goal came on a Jamie Benn deflection of a point shot early in the second period. From then on, the Americans, unable to get close to Canadian goalie Carey Price, were increasingly desperate.
Price stopped 31 shots, most of them from far out and few of them challenging. U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had 36 saves.
The atmosphere in sold-out Bolshoy Ice Dome was a far cry from the electricity that marked the teams’ meeting in the 2004 gold-medal game.
While colorfully garbed American and Canadian fans tried to maintain a steady din, the Russians in the crowd, no doubt still recovering from their team’s premature elimination, were surprisingly passive.
“It was a little flat,” said U.S. forward Ryan Callahan.
Team Canada will now meet Sweden in Sunday’s gold-medal game, while the U.S. and Finland will play for bronze Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m.
Victory Sunday would firmly reestablish Canada as the world’s preeminent hockey power, especially with Team Russia in disarray. It would give Canada a second consecutive Olympic gold medal, having defeated the U.S. in that memorable matchup at Vancouver four years ago.
And the Canadian women, who as usual beat the U.S. in their gold-medal meeting Thursday, have won four straight golds.
The U.S., meanwhile had been hoping for its first gold medal of the Olympics’ NHL era, which began in 1998. By beating Canada, they had hoped also to avenge the women’s stinging overtime loss a night earlier and their own gold-medal heartbreak in Vancouver.
All those reasons plus the familiar chants of “U-S-A. U-S-A” from their supporters weren’t enough on a night when Team Canada never let them get anything started.
“We had plenty of motivation in this game,” said U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter. “We just didn’t take it out on the ice.”
“They’re a good team. But we sat back and were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat back on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all.”
If the Bolshoy Ice Dome crowd hadn’t been paying attention to this tournament, it would have been surprised to find out the U.S. team that was so thoroughly throttled had averaged five goals a game in routing four opponents here by a combined score of 20-6.
“I think we were the first team that could skate with them in the tournament,” said Canadian forward Matt Duchene. “Even the Russians didn’t play them as hard as we did. We’ve got a real commitment to back-checking and making ourselves hard to play against.”
Bigger and more physical than their swifter rivals, the Canadians were built for defense. They allowed only a handful of difficult U.S. shots on Price and through five victories in Sochi have yielded only three goals.
“They did a good job of keeping us to the outside,” said U.S. defenseman David Backes, “limiting our chances and traffic in front of the net. We need to get to those hard areas and sustain that zone time to make sure we’re getting bodies there. We didn’t do that enough.”
Toward the end of a scoreless first period, Canada started to assert its will.
Then, less than two minutes into the second, Jay Bouwmeester took a pass from Benn at the left point and fired a shot toward the goal, where several players were jostling for position.
Benn got his stick up amid the melee and perfectly deflected the puck up and over goalie Quick’s left shoulder.
“We were just trying to grind it out down low,” said Benn, who was Canada’s most visible presence all night. “I got down in the middle and I made a pass back to the D. Jay made a great shot-pass and it found its way in.”
As the lead continued to hold up, the Americans grew more desperate and frustrated. Patrick Kane, for example, seemed to have the puck in his hands in the Canadian zone all night, but could manage very few clean passes or shots.
Though the Canadians had but two power-play opportunities, it appeared that they were playing with an extra man all night long.
“We had a really tough time sustaining any pressure at all in their end,” said U.S. forward Ryan Callahan. “They outnumbered us in their zone, came up with the puck quick whenever we dumped it in there. And as we expected, they were quick in transition.”
Quick was pulled in the final two minutes but even then his American teammates could generate little against the Canadian wall.
When the horn sounded, Canada’s players were surprisingly subdued, given this fourth win in five Olympic matchups with the U.S. since ‘98. They shook hands calmly and moved to congratulate their goalie.
The Americans, meanwhile, angrily unsnapped their helmets, the night-long frustration having worn them down.
“There’s no question they’re a talented group,” said Callahan. “They have a lot of skill and they know how to play with it. This is a tough one to take.”