Team USA set for physical battle with Finland
What to watch -- For those that believe the National Hockey League game is the best style of hockey in the world, this is the game for you. This game will be played like a Stanley Cup Playoff game, as both sides are designed to dominate on the small ice. Yes, each side has skill -- Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu for Finland, and Zach Parise and Pat Kane for the Americans -- but this game will be about which side can impose its physical will on the other, especially late in the game if it stays close. "We need to make sure we are outworking them to go along with the talent we have in our lineup," said David Backes, one of Team USA's foot soldiers. "I think if we win the work-ethic battle, we like our chances. If we don't win the work-ethic battle, then it is up in the air and anything can happen."
Actually, even if one team wins the work-ethic battle, the game could still hang in the balance because this game pits the two best goalies left in the tournament -- Team USA's Ryan Miller and Finland's Miikka Kiprusoff -- going head-to-head. "It should be a great game," Team USA defenseman Jack Johnson said.
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. 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 -- if they hope to get to the gold-medal game.
"We know they have some high-octane guys on the back end, some good forwards up front and one of the best goalies in the League, so it's going be a great game," defenseman Erik Johnson said.
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 with the man advantage. In four games, the Americans have earned 16 power-play opportunities and scored four goals (one in each game). Finland, by contrast, has seven. 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.
Finland -- The Finns haven't scored an even-strength goal against a manned net in its past two games. They won Wednesday's quarterfinal against the Czechs will 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 an issue -- especially because Selanne and Koivu -- two-thirds of the Finns' top line and the co-leading scorers four years ago in Turin -- have yet to manage a goal.
So clearly offense is an issue heading into the semifinal, but it is not paralyzing the Finns. "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 like that because Kiprusoff has been terrific. He already has two shutouts and leads the tournament in save percentage.
Total NHL players on rosters -- USA: 23. Finland: 18.
Puck drop -- These two teams have a rich and entertaining international hockey history. They have met 11 times in the Winter Games history and the Americans have won six, including the gold-medal win in 1980 in the game after the "Miracle on Ice" win against the Soviet Union. Finland has won three times, including a 4-3 win in the quarterfinals in 2006. The other two games have ended in ties. Of course, much is on the line for each team in this game, so the past will not be as important as the present. Yet, history will certainly play a part in shaping how this game plays out.
These two teams respect each other, but it won't stop them from playing a bone-rattling game that should be high on drama. "It's always kind of fun to play (physical games), as well," said Finland center Mikko Koivu. "It's tough; but it's fair. That's the way it should be."
NHL.com prediction -- Finland was my pick to win gold before this tournament started and with a win in Friday's semifinal could become the first country to appear in back-to-back gold-medal games since NHLers were added to Olympic competition in 1998. But, there is no denying that the United States has caught lightning in a bottle and is on the verge of something special with a young, brash group of players. In the end, I have to go with current form and pick the upstart Americans to win a one-goal game from the Finns.
-- Shawn P. Roarke