Keys to the Gold Medal Game…Team U.S.A. vs. Canada Olympic Hockey Final… VIDEO…


Team U.S.A.  vs. Canada Olympic Hockey Final… Keys to the Gold Medal Game…

By Scott Burnside
and Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Heading into Sunday’s gold-medal game, we look at the keys to the game for the United States and Canada:

Burnside: Keys for United States
1. Evolution: Everyone says the key to winning the Olympic tournament is to get better with each game. It gets a little boring, frankly. But here’s the thing about this U.S. team, it has done exactly that. It has slowly evolved from a young team uncertain about its identity to one that is practically oozing confidence.

Yes, Miikka Kiprusoff was a train wreck for Finland in the semifinals, but the U.S. still scored six goals before the game was 13 minutes old. The Americans won’t do the same to Canada, but they also won’t be hanging on for dear life like they did during the team’s 5-3 win a week ago.

“We’ve played extremely well,” GM Brian Burke said. “I don’t think we had all hands on deck in the preliminary round. I think we stole the Canada game; our goaltender stole it for us. … And I thought against the Swiss and then again against the Finns, we had everyone participating and contributing, and that’s what you want in a tournament like this. It’s a short tournament. You want to be playing your best hockey as you go into that last game.”

2. Off the blocks: The Americans have never trailed in this tournament and have enjoyed early success in pretty much every game but their quarterfinal win over Switzerland. Against Canada, defenseman Brian Rafalski, who leads all scorers in the tournament with eight points, scored 41 seconds in. Scoring first Sunday will help send the Americans to their first gold medal since 1980.

3. Out of the box, out of trouble: No team in the tournament has taken fewer penalties than the Americans, who have been to the box just 13 times in five games. They have allowed three goals, but the key is to not give Canada a chance to unleash its considerable power. The Canadians have seven power-play goals, but the Americans’ best chance against Canada comes from playing 5-on-5, where they can force the Canadian defense into turnovers and draw penalties of their own.

4. Ryan Miller time: Gee, you’d think the guy was good or something. Well, the lanky, cerebral Buffalo netminder has been the Americans’ top player in this tournament, and his play and calm demeanor have been instrumental in the Americans’ coming together so quickly in a short tournament.

Miller pretty much stole the win against Canada earlier, and he may be called on to do it again. Shouldn’t be a problem, though, as he leads all goalies in the tournament with a .954 save percentage. Burke wouldn’t say Miller gives them a distinct advantage with Roberto Luongo between the pipes for Canada, so we will. He does.

“You’re talking about elite goaltenders there. You’re talking about apples and apples. I think Roberto Luongo has been the best goaltender in the National Hockey League the last two years. But I think Ryan’s been the best this year,” Burke said. “It’s not a decided advantage. But it’s given us a comfort level that allows our team to play a certain way because we trust him.”

Canada coach Mike Babcock said they hope to get more traffic in front of Miller.

“I just got their stats in front of me and it looks to me that Rafalski has eight points, so he must be important. [Zach] Parise’s got seven, so he must be important. Then I look down here at the save percentage and it’s .954. You don’t have to be that smart to figure out who is important. We’ve got to go get him.”

5. Setting the tone: In the aftermath of Canada’s 7-3 rout against Russia, netminder Ilya Bryzgalov said the Canadians were “like gorillas out of a cage.”

If the Canadians have their way, they’ll produce a similar effort Sunday. The Americans will have to match that, which means players like David Backes and Dustin Brown and hometown hero Ryan Kesler will have to bring the same snarl they have shown throughout the tournament. This will be especially important early in the game, when the hometown fans will be at a fever pitch.

“We’re not going to survive if we hide in the foxhole, I can tell you that,” U.S. coach Ron Wilson said.

LeBrun: Keys for Canada
1. Size and strength: Overall, 15 of Canada’s 23 players are 6-foot-2 or taller, while the U.S. has eight players who fit that criteria. Canada has only three players under 6-foot, while the Americans have eight. That should mean more puck battles won by Team Canada.

2. Championship experience: Team Canada has more players that have won the big games, and it doesn’t get any bigger than Sunday. Canada doubles Team USA’s output in Stanley Cup rings (14-7). The Americans have rings from Brian Rafalski (3), Jamie Langenbrunner (2), Chris Drury (1) and Brooks Orpik (1), while Canada counters with Scott Niedermayer (4), Martin Brodeur (3), Chris Pronger (1), Eric Staal (1), Dan Boyle (1), Corey Perry (1), Ryan Getzlaf (1), Sidney Crosby (1) and Marc-Andre Fleury. And there are 2002 Olympic gold medals hanging in the basements of Pronger, Niedermayer, Brodeur and Jarome Iginla, while there are none in the Team USA dressing room.

“What I do know is, whether it was the team I coached at the University of Lethbridge when we won a national championship or a world junior team or a Stanley Cup team or a World Championship team, if you win together, you walk together forever,” said Babcock. “I really believe that. You remember those guys and you remember something special and you have tons of fond memories of it. Here’s an opportunity of a lifetime and you want to make good on it.”

3. Battle tested: Team Canada has gone through its share of adversity in this tournament. The loss to the United States and the slim wins over Switzerland and Slovakia ignited fear in the country, but also provided important lessons for the players. They should react better to adversity come Sunday, whereas the young American team has never trailed once in the tournament and might panic a little if Canada gets off to a quick lead.

It’s also worth nothing Team Canada oozes leadership with nine NHL captains on its roster: Crosby, Rick Nash, Niedermayer, Staal, Mike Richards, Jonathan Toews, Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Roberto Luongo. Team USA has three NHL captains: Chris Drury, Jamie Langenbrunner and Dustin Brown. More than anything, this stresses just how young the Americans are as they go into the biggest game of their careers.

4. Offensive depth: Team Canada counts eight players among the top 25 NHL scoring leaders: Crosby, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley, Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Nash, Iginla; Team USA has only two in Patrick Kane and Zach Parise.

What that has done for Canada in recent games is afford them the luxury of having different stars step up.

“Against the Russians, I thought it was the Toews line, having Nash and Richards with him,” Babcock said. “Last night, I thought it was Morrow with Getzlaf and Perry. Who knows from night to night. That’s the idea of depth in your roster. You have an opportunity for different people to pick you up on different nights. Right now, we like the balance of our group.”

5. Home-ice advantage: The roar at Canada Hockey Place on Sunday might be unprecedented.

“It’s fun. You come out on the ice and you see everybody wearing red, it gets the guys going even more,” said Luongo. “It’s fun to be part of something like that. It’s an experience we’ll probably never get to live again. I’m just looking forward to tomorrow and the craziness in the building.”

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com

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