Gold is what everyone was after in Sochi and now only two teams are left to fight for it. For the only other two teams that have a game to play, it’s the medal nobody wants to play for. The U.S. and Finland will play for bronze Saturday morning in a game that is anti-climactic for both teams. The idea of playing for third place may even seem silly after both fell to their closest rivals in one-goal games Friday. But there’s still an Olympic medal on the line and that’s at the very least better than going home with nothing besides some lovable stray dogs.
For the U.S., it is a chance to make some amount of history. In men’s hockey, Team USA has not won medals in back-to-back Olympics since 1956-60 and hasn’t won a medal of any color outside of North America since 1972. Hard to believe, but most of USA Hockey’s Olympic damage was done closer to home and before the modern era of the Olympics took hold.
For the players, it’s a tough one to get up for, no doubt. I’ve heard coaches say that the gold medal is hard to win, but the bronze is even tougher. To be that close to the gold-medal game and to have to turn around and play what amounts to a consolation game less than 24 hours later is an awfully tough pill to swallow.
The bronze-medal game is where you get to find out just how prideful the players really are. To come back from bitter defeat and to put in an effort to at least be able to look back on the Olympics as a team that at least finished on the podium is still something.
To be honest, this is going to be a tough game for the U.S. They were out-played against Canada in a game that may have been as exhausting as it was frustrating. Meanwhile, Finland has been in this position a few times before and have found ways to close out at least a medal in all but one of the Olympics since the NHL started going in 1998.
Finland played Canada tough in an overtime loss in the prelims, a sound 3-1 victory over host Russia in the quarterfinals and a hard-fought loss against Sweden in Friday’s early semifinal. A mix of tremendous team defense and superb goaltending make the Finns a tough team to play against. They don’t have the scoring depth, but they are good with the chances they’re given.
Dan Bylsma has some decisions to make heading into the final game at the Olympics. Does he make many changes to the lineup or does he keep it status quo?
The first big decision is what to do in net. Playing Jonathan Quick in back-to-back games is far from an easy call. He was tremendous against Canada and probably has enough in the tank for another run, but they’ll need him to be sharp.
Ryan Miller could be ready if needed, but maybe Bylsma will leave it up to Quick and see how he feels. It would seem weird to have the tournament end with the No. 1 on the bench, but after a game like Friday’s when Quick left it all out there, maybe going with the fresher of the two would be helpful. That will be interesting to watch unfold.
For the record, Quick’s .947 save percentage would be an all-time single-Olympics high* for Team USA, while his 1.47 goals-against average is second to Miller’s 1.30 from 2010. Make no mistake about it, Quick was very, very good and if Bylsma wants to let him see it through, he should.
*USA Hockey doesn’t have historical save percentages recording, but looking through goalie statistics at sports-reference.com for Olympic goalies in the modern era, Quick’s mark would be a record for the U.S., narrowly beating out Ryan Miller’s mark of .946 from 2010.
The U.S. also has to find a way to get some offensive spark. That may mean getting Derek Stepan into the lineup as he has been in only one game so far. He could be an option to give the U.S. some fresh legs and some jump from a player who probably would be happy to play for a medal.
It could also mean more ice time for Blake Wheeler, who has ridden the pine quite a bit. Giving him a regular shift and seeing what he has early seems to make sense since he should be champing at the bit to get in there and play some.
The U.S. is already without Paul Martin, who suffered a hand injury, reportedly. That means Justin Faulk will remain in the lineup. He got just two shifts in the Canada game, so it would be good to see him see more ice time as well.
You just have to wonder if the guys who haven’t played a lot have a little more to give in games like these. Also, there are 12 players on this roster that don’t have a medal like the 13 returnees from 2010 do. Going to the Olympics is nice, but coming home a medalist is nicer.
Finland plays a trap-style defensively, which is going to challenge Team USA’s forwards. If they’re not competitive enough to get to the hard areas of the ice or some creative enough to find the holes in Finland’s defensive shell, it’s going to be a pretty boring hockey game.
With the pressure off and a chance to play one more time to get on the podium, the U.S. simply has to show up and play. The more competitive team is going to skate away with the bronze. Now we get to see who has anything left after a heart-wrenching Friday.