SOCHI, Russia — Their first meeting on the global hockey stage came at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, which were held in the spring. Canada sent the Winnipeg Falcons, who blanked the Americans, 2-0, on the way to the gold medal, and with rare exceptions, their Maple Leaf successors have kept it up ever since, winning or tying 52 of their 59 meetings in the Olympics or World Championships.
The 60th encounter comes Friday night inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome when these two old rivals engage in another border war in the Olympic semifinals, the night after the Canadian women snatched the gold medal away from their American counterparts in overtime.
“To beat them is something that was on our list,” said US forward David Backes, more than half of whose teammates collected a bittersweet silver in overtime behind the hosts in Vancouver four years ago. “It seems like we were on a crash course to meet those guys.”
Not since 1960, when the Clearys and Christians laced up in Squaw Valley, have the Yanks beaten both the Russians (they were Soviets in those days) and the Canadians at the same Games. That demanding double led to the gold medal, and Uncle Sam’s newest generation of nephews is on the same track after canceling the Czechs, 5-2, in Wednesday’s quarterfinals for their fourth consecutive victory here.
“I don’t think they’ve had a matchup, besides the Russians, where they were beat at all,” observed Canadian coach Mike Babcock, whose own squad didn’t put away the Latvians in the quarters until the final seven minutes. “They just beat everyone big-time.”
The US has rung up 20 goals with a dozen players scoring while allowing only five behind an alert and muscular defense and the miserly goaltending of Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller. While the Canadians have conceded only three goals behind Carey Price and Roberto Luongo, they’ve managed only 13, with six coming against Austria.
“We will play a US team that scores really easily,” said Babcock. “We are not able to score really easy.”
So the Americans are prepared for a grind-fest, and actually would prefer one.
“We are not going to try to outshoot a team like Canada,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “We are going in with a blue-collar mentality, to outwork them. We want to win a low-scoring game, a 2-1 game.”
Unlike their last meeting at Olympus, which followed a 5-3 US triumph in the prelims, this one won’t be for a medal but for a berth in the final against the survivor of another neighborly spat (their 76th) between Sweden’s world titlists and Finland, which dismissed the Russians, 3-1, behind Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask’s 37 saves in the most dispiriting defeat in the country’s hockey history.
“Of course we hate — a little bit hate — and love each other,” said Finnish defenseman Sami Vatanen. “It will be fun.”
Nobody has used that F-word to describe the US-Canada rivalry, which only recently has been approaching parity. The Canadians hold a lopsided 49-7-3 advantage in the global series and are 11-3-3 at Olympus. But the Americans have won two of the last four meetings and claimed the last one in overtime at the 2012 World Championships. Last year, they made the medal stand for the first time in nearly a decade and the Canadians did not.
“This is the game we all wanted,” said Bylsma.
If the Yanks win it, they’ll clinch a medal at consecutive Games for the first time since 1960 and at an overseas Olympics for the first time since 1972, when Robbie Ftorek and his buddies won silver in Sapporo. If the Canadians prevail, they’ll have a chance to be the first country to win three titles in four quadrennia since the Soviet Union/Unified Team in 1984-’88-’92.
“It’s for the chance to play for a gold medal,” said Canadian forward Jonathan Toews, who’ll be up against Blackhawks linemate Patrick Kane. “It doesn’t get any better than that, playing for your country against the United States.
“There are millions of kids that grow up dreaming of this situation and we have a chance to go and make a dream come true. It’s going to be a great night and a great game.”