The Olympic men's hockey quarterfinals have concluded, and if you're an American fan of the sport, you're getting the matchup you've been hoping for: Team USA will play Canada on Friday with the winner advancing to Sunday's gold-medal game. But it's a dream matchup even for those casually paying attention to Olympic hockey this week, which traditionally is a big chunk of the audience. Hockey fans know all about the recent history between the countries, from the 2002 and 2010 gold-medal games to the World Junior tournaments to the meetings in the defunct (for now) World Cup. But even those unfamiliar with the specifics of the rivalry over the past 20 years know how important the sport is in Canada. Even someone who doesn't know Ryan Getzlaf from Ryan Kesler understands what beating them in the Olympics would mean. The American men's team has waited four years for their shot do just that. Friday, they'll get it.
The United States and Canada punched their respective tickets to the semifinals in very different ways. Team USA, which emerged from the preliminary round as the second overall seed behind Sweden, cruised against an inferior opponent in its quarterfinal today, crushing the Czech Republic, 5-2. But Team Canada had its hands full with Latvia, a team with just one active NHL player and little history of success in the Olympics. (Their upset win over Switzerland to advance to the quarterfinals was their first Olympic victory in 12 years.)
An NBC graphic put the talent level of these teams in perspective: The members of Team Canada have played in a combined 15,938 NHL regular season and playoff games. Team Latvia, meanwhile, had just 1,350 games of NHL experience, and more than a thousand of them were thanks to defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who is 41 years old and hasn't played in the league since the 2007-08 season. (He currently plays in Russia's KHL.) Team Latvia coach Ted Nolan had made comparisons between his group and the underdog 1980 "Miracle on Ice" American squad, and his team came closer than anyone outside their dressing room believed they would, playing Canada to a 1-1 well into the third period. But a Shea Weber blast from the point with 6:54 remaining in the third period gave Canada a 2-1 lead that they'd protect until the final buzzer. If you felt a breeze earlier this afternoon, it was probably the nation of Canada collectively exhaling.
And so next comes the matchup North American fans have wanted since Sidney Crosby scored his golden goal four years ago. It's going to be a heck of a week for the U.S.-Canada hockey rivalry: The women's teams, as usual, will meet in the gold medal match tomorrow. Then Friday, the men's teams face off in the semifinals of their tournament.
The gold-medal hockey game has become the premier event of the Winter Olympics (feel free to tell me I'm wrong in the comments, biathlon fans). And it will be this year, no matter who meets in the finals. But as strong as the rivalry is between Sweden and Finland — they'll meet in the other semifinal — the other side of the bracket has produced the tournament's best possible matchup, especially now that Russia's been eliminated. The American men have looked great in this tournament; the Canadians, though undefeated, have been a little shaky (and will play without John Tavares, who will miss the remainder of the tournament with an injury). The puck drops between the U.S. and Canada at noon Eastern on Friday. Bring it on, ya hosers.