VANCOUVER -- After the first two games of the men's hockey tournament, the United States and Canada are set to collide Sunday in the first real test for both teams in the tournament.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two normally friendly neighbors have developed into each other's biggest rival on the ice, supplanting the former Soviet Union for both nations. Officials inside USA Hockey privately savor big wins over their neighbors to the north more than any other nation, and at the junior level, the Americans are now a bigger threat to the Canadians' dominance on ice, handing Canada their only two gold-medal losses in the tournament over the last seven years.
This year, with the game taking place just a half-hour's drive from the Peace Arch that sits on the Washington-British Columbia border, scalpers have been gobbling up tickets for the preliminary round game for up to $1,000 CDN apiece for a chance to see the two teams wrap up the three-game schedule before the medal round begins later in the week.
For its part, the United States has performed well in its first two contests, doing its part to take the lead in Group A with a pair of regulation wins over Switzerland and Norway. Tuesday afternoon, the U.S. outlasted the Swiss 3-1 in a game that took the squad that had just one practice under their belt to gel together. Thursday afternoon, the Americans showed little rust, taking an early lead and then pouring it on in the third period against the Norwegians in a 6-1 decision.
Canada, however, presents to the young U.S. squad a much deeper and much more talented opponent to face with the top seed in the group and an automatic bye to the quarterfinals on the line.
Despite being a consensus gold-medal favorite, Canada has sputtered a bit in their two wins.
In their win against Norway Tuesday, the Canadians needed a period to score on a team that hadn't qualified for the Olympic tournament since 1994. Thursday afternoon, the hosts got a major scare from the Swiss, Canada blew a 2-0 lead and then needed to win the tiebreaking shootout to avoid the embarrassment of losing to a lightly-regarded opponent.
While a loss to the Swiss wouldn't have ended Canada's hopes of winning the group, it certainly would have been humiliating for the program to drop that game on home ice - and also shows how vulnerable even strong favorites can be in this tournament.
The pressure on the Canadians is exceedingly high to dispatch the Americans in a rematch of the 2002 gold-medal game, although the two teams are markedly different from the last time an Olympic tournament was held on North American soil at Salt Lake City in 2002.
As always, Canada is an exceedingly deep squad with a large pool of players to choose from. The final 23-man roster is a virtual All-Star team constructed by former Red Wings star Steve Yzerman, loaded with talent and size, and backstopped by three-time Stanley Cup winner and 2002 gold-medal winner goaltender Martin Brodeur.
The key question is how this year's team will be how the group handles the intense pressure of playing at home where anything less than gold will be a rather crushing disappointment for not only the team but their fans.
After the first period of the Norway game, the home crowd quickly became impatient when the home team couldn't dent the twine against a team most people expected to compete for last place in the 12-team field. Then, against the Swiss, fans became even more anxious after losing the early lead and then needing to go through four rounds of the tiebreaker before finally taking the win over another team with little hope of earning a medal.
The Americans are the only other team in the group that before was given a chance to skate with the Canadians, and after struggling at times against two weaker opponents, fans from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia wonder if the team will elevate its game, or simply continue to play a disjointed game as the opposition just will get tougher from here on out.
As for the U.S., the team is much thinner than it has been in recent Olympics as longtime veteran stars such as Chris Chelios and Mike Modano aren't in Vancouver, but USA Hockey wanted to go younger and faster for this year's tournament. As a result, there is an infusion of newer stars, like Chicago Blackhawks standout Patrick Kane and and Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who are two of the few recognizable name on a rather green roster.
The pressure for the Americans will be keeping up with the host nation, and not letting the pressure of playing them on their home soil get of them. Many of the players on the Olympic squad have taken part in past World Junior Championships where the Americans have held their own against the Canadians in recent years, but this is an entirely different stage altogether with a large audience across both nations expected to be watching live.
No player, however, will play a bigger part in the U.S. looking to author an upset than Miller, the Michigan State product who is getting his first Olympic action this year.
Miller, who is contention for the NHL's Vezina Trophy for top netminder, will look to keep up some of his strong play that has Buffalo in contention for the Northeast Division title. With the Olypmic tournament's format, nothing fuels an upset bid like a hot goalie, and facing some talented forwards from here on out, Miller will have to play as the road will get much tougher for the U.S. Even more tricky for the NHL players is unlike the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is a best-of-seven series, the medal round is single-elimination format, making things even more unpredictable and magnifying bad performances by a netminder, as a bad showing can evaporate a team's medal hopes in a hurry.
The winner of Sunday's game will get an automatic bye into the quarterfinals, and also earn an easier draw, while the loser will need to play an extra game to reach the quarterfinals. In addition, the two countries will be able to measure how they stack up as the Canadian look to justify their status as a medal favorite, while the Americans try to make their mark and put themselves in the medal conversation with a strong showing.
For hockey fans, it will be great theater.
"This is going to be unbelievable," former Capitals coach and current U.S. coach Ron Wilson told the New York Times. "Its going to be on every TV in Canada and a good number in America. Anyone who is a hockey fan will be watching. ... Its going to be a great day for hockey."