With bragging rights on the line, not to mention a pair of teammates to cheer on, Friday's men’s ice hockey semifinals mean a lot even to the Phoenix Coyotes who aren’t participating in this year’s Olympic games in Russia.
In all, five Coyotes were invited to play on their country’s respective teams at the 2014 Winter Games, and two will go head to head tomorrow in the renewal of a Scandinavian rivalry, as defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson will compete for Team Sweden against forward Lauri Korpikoski and Team Finland tomorrow at 5 am local time.
Coyotes' goalie Mike Smith, a member of Team Canada, is not expected to dress for the Canadians’ semifinal matchup against the United States at 10 a.m.
Coyotes' head coach Dave Tippett said the team will watch the USA-Canada game together at Jobing.com Arena before hitting the ice for a team practice. He said the Americans and Canadians always bring the best out of each other, as they did when Canada won the gold medal in a 3-2 overtime win over the U.S. at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
“I expect no different than the gold-medal game in Vancouver,” said Tippett, a native of Saskatchewan in west-central Canada. “That was similar (to) an NHL game. The players all know each other. They play NHL-style. That’s exactly the kind of game I expect tomorrow.”
Fellow Canadian and Coyotes’ team captain Shane Doan was all smiles in the team locker room after he and some of his teammates watched the Canadian women’s team rally to defeat Team USA in today’s gold-medal game. He expects a similar result in the men’s semifinal game tomorrow.
“With the way the U.S. has played, they’ve looked incredible,” he said. “But it’s all about the blue line, and when it comes down to the blue line, I like Canada’s blue line.”
Doan, a native of Halkirk, Alberta, said his loyalties may have been split had Coyotes defenseman and Boston native Keith Yandle been selected to play for the U.S., as many thought he should have been.
“If Yands had been on Team USA, then maybe there’d be a little bit of leaning that way,” he said. “But without him there and them not taking him, it really made it kind of easy to cheer for Canada.”
Coyotes' forward and Ontario native Paul Bissonnette is picking his home country to defeat Team USA by a score of 5-3. He said Canadian forward Sydney Crosby, who scored the overtime game-winner against the U.S. in the 2010 gold-medal game, will make the difference.
“I think Canada’s kind of been waiting in the weeds a little bit,” he said. “I think maybe it took (Crosby) a little time to adjust, so I think now’s his time to shine and he’ll come out of his shell.”
Forward and Michigan native David Moss, one of just four Americans on the Coyotes’ current roster, cites Team USA’s depth as the reason it will defeat the Canadians tomorrow.
“I think they have four really complete lines that play well,” he said. “You watch every line go out there and be really good when they get the puck in the offensive zone below the goal line, and they defend well and they’ve got really good goaltending, so that’s a good recipe for success.
“I think it’ll be a U.S.-Sweden final, hopefully with the U.S. winning gold.”
As for that other semifinal game, defenseman David Rundblad, the only Swede other than Ekman-Larsson on the Coyotes’ roster, said the Sweden-Finland rivalry is similar to that of Canada and the U.S.
“First of all, it’s a game we can’t lose. It’s the worst team to lose against, Finland, so we pretty much have to win it,” he said. “I haven’t watched Finland play yet, but everyone knows they’ve got a really good goalie. But I think (Sweden wins) – 3-1 maybe.”
Doan is also picking Sweden to advance to the gold-medal game, even though he may end up pulling for Korpikoski over Ekman-Larsson to advance to the final, noting that Finland has never won a gold medal in ice hockey.
“Sweden won gold (before), so maybe it’d be better if Finland gets in this time,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s going to be pretty cool that one of them is going to get to play for a gold medal.”
Bissonnette said he’s also rooting for Korpikoski, but for a different reason.
“OEL makes a lot of money, so I’d like to see Korpi win the gold,” he joked. “(Gold medals have) good resale value.”