Ever since the Olympic men's hockey schedule was released this is the day that hockey fans throughout North America have been waiting for. Though Canada vs. Russia might be a more traditional rivalry, over the past decade and a half Canada vs. USA has really heated up in both men's and women's hockey. Obviously the close geographical proximity of the two nations is a huge factor, but so is the USA's rapid rise as a hockey power. In 1980 the USA's Olypmic gold medal in men's ice hockey was dubbed "a miracle". Now, 30 years later they have to be considered a strong medal contender in every international event they enter.
Canadians are naturally protective of the pastime they consider their national sport, and take pride at being the best in the world at it. Having the USA, which is already so dominant in so many other sports like basketball, baseball and football, take that title away would be a bitter pill to swallow indeed.
So as you can see there is more on the line here than seeding going into this match-up. The psyches of two nations are intertwined in the outcome of this game, and you can bet fans from both nations (though especially Canada) will be cheering each goal and save as if this were the gold medal game.
On paper Canada looks to have a stronger team, with incredible depth at the goaltending, defense, and forward positions. With Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash up front Canada should have no problem putting the puck in the net. However, chemistry plays a big role in team success at a short tournament like this, and in their last game against Switzerland Canada proved they have yet to find that offensive chemistry, scoring only two regulation goals against the Swiss before finally winning the game in a shootout. Granted, they ran in to a red hot goaltender in Jonas Hiller, but with Ryan Miller between the pipes for the Americans their shooters' jobs aren't going to get any easier.
The Americans boast plenty of firepower of their own, with snipers like Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Phil Kessel and Paul Stastny on their roster. With big bruising forwards like David Backes, Dustin Brown and Ryan Malone, Team USA will definitely make Canada's defensemen pay a physical toll as well. Look for the Americans to get in hard on the forecheck and try and use that physical play to try and turn pucks over and establish a cycle down low. However, they have their work cut out for them, as savvy veterans like Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger aren't likely to crumble under such pressure, and Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, and Duncan Keith can all dish out plenty of physical punishment of their own.
All in all it is a great day to be a Canadian or an American hockey fan. This will be a bitterly contested game, played with the intensity of a game 7 Stanley Cup Finals match. Look for the goaltending to be great, the pace to be high, and the hitting to be constant and brutal. This will be hockey at its purest and its rawest, and the winner will give an entire nation bragging rights (at least until the medal round starts). So relax, grab a beer (or six), settle in and enjoy. I know I will be.