-- The Olympic men's hockey tournament has reached the semifinals, and there are plenty of storylines to explore in each game.
What should fans look for when North American rivals take the ice on Friday?
We're glad you asked, because Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun have answers.
1. Pressure on Canada: Four years after an epic gold-medal game in Vancouver and thousands of miles from home, Team Canada is still under more pressure than the United States heading into their semifinal matchup in Sochi. Different dynamics, obviously, but it's interesting that all of the focus is once again on Canada. In Vancouver, it was about winning it all in front of a rabid home audience. Here, it is about trying to prove that there is nothing wrong with a lineup that is as talented on paper as any Canada has had since the 1987 Canada Cup, but still can't find the back of the net.
The Americans, meanwhile, are the favorites in the sense that they are playing the best hockey of any of the four remaining teams, and have done so against the best competition. They once again will enjoy the position of being the foils to the drama that seemingly always envelops Canada at best-on-best tournaments. Does it mean anything? Likely not, but it's fun to talk about.
"At this point, whether we beat three favorites or zero, nobody's going to really think about that or talk about that if we get the result we want [Friday] and win the game," Canadian captain Sidney Crosby said Thursday.
2. Meaning for the U.S.: Both semifinals have that big brother/little brother feeling. Sweden has always peered down on Finland, and the United States has always chased the standard set by Canada in hockey.
The win in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, finally beating Canada in a best-on-best championship, meant so much to the United States from that perspective. Still, a win like that hasn't happened since, with the U.S. losing to Canada in both the 2002 and 2010 Olympic gold-medal games. So, yes, it feels like the Americans are still looking up at Canada.
"They're the neighbors, they're the ones who produce the most players, some of the high-end players out there," Team USA forward Joe Pavelski said. "You're always trying to match up against them. They've proven themselves over and over again. When you get a chance to play against them, they're the best, so you want to be there."
It doesn't matter how many times the U.S. beats Canada in the world junior championships. That's not the best against the best. An Olympic semifinal win Friday night would mean so much to USA Hockey and a generation of kids in America.
"It's the biggest [rivalry] in hockey. For a long time, the Canadians have been expected to win tournaments. I think the Americans have challenged that in recent years. You can go back to 2002 or 2010 or world junior tournaments. This will be the next version," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said.
3. The Americans are healthy: The United States has enjoyed an injury-free run to the final four. There were some some scares during the first part of the NHL season with Jonathan Quick, Ryan Callahan, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Zach Parise and Max Pacioretty (among others) missing significant time, but the Americans arrived in Sochi without having to alter their lineup for health reasons. And since they have been here, that good health has continued.
Oh, sure, there are bumps and bruises. Ryan Kesler blocked a shot with his hand in the game against the Russians, and this is a U.S. team that is fond of throwing itself in front of shots. But compared to Canada -- which lost John Tavares to a season-ending knee injury in the quarterfinals, and lost Steven Stamkos to a broken leg earlier in the NHL season -- the U.S. is in a good spot. Take a broader view and look at the injuries that the Finns and Swedes sustained both before and during this Olympic tournament, and you can see one of the reasons the U.S. is so highly regarded right now.
4. Will Carey Price come through? We all know Team Canada goaltender Carey Price is the man in net, but now we'll find out if he's really The Man as he faces the biggest single-game test of his career. Price has a checkered playoff history in the NHL and will have to come up big against the most dangerous, balanced offensive unit in the Olympic tournament. The issue for Price is that he hasn't exactly been worked to the bone here. In three games, Price has faced just 51 shots, an average of 17 per game, but he's been calm and confident when tested.
"He's an unbelievable goalie," Canadian defenseman Drew Doughty said. "He's so skilled. He's awesome. And he's come up big when we needed him. It's tough for a goalie for to play with only 15, 16 shots. It's not easy. And he's done an unbelievable job.''
If anyone has a book on Price, though, it's Pacioretty, a teammate of Price's in Montreal.
"He doesn't have too many weaknesses, so I'm not going to tell the boys too much, obviously,'' Pacioretty said Thursday after practice. "He's one of the best goalies in the world. He's been playing great hockey this year. Just like any goalie, you try and not let him see the puck. It's the only way you're going to beat him.''
5. Intriguing NHL connections: There are myriad NHL connections between these two teams that make for a compelling and complex contest, starting with Bylsma, the Pittsburgh Penguins' coach trying to steal a victory from Crosby, who also wears the "C" for Pittsburgh. Someone asked Bylsma if he knew what was "wrong" with Crosby, who has yet to score in Sochi.
"I haven't seen Sidney Crosby in 12 days," Bylsma noted. But he will see him Friday, the coach was reminded. "I'm not fixing anything," Bylsma added.
It's not just Bylsma/Crosby. There's also Crosby and linemate Chris Kunitz potentially playing against Pittsburgh teammates Martin and Orpik, who have been paired together as a shutdown tandem for much of the tournament for the U.S.
Patrick Kane will be going against three Chicago Blackhawks teammates with whom he has won two Stanley Cups: Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. In fact, there was a minor brouhaha when Kane appeared to suggest he's never played with anyone as naturally gifted as U.S. teammate Phil Kessel, which might have been taken the wrong way by Toews, his Chicago captain. The issue was chalked up to miscommunication and all was quickly forgiven.
How about the collision of wills that hard-nosed U.S. forwards David Backes and T.J. Oshie are expected to have with St. Louis Blues teammates Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester, who have been rock-solid as a defensive tandem for Canada?
"We had that conversation before we left that we're going to wear our country's colors and play as hard as we can for our countries," Backes said. "We'll figure out those relationships when we get back to our respective teams. Maybe it takes a cold beverage and someone has to buy dinner, but we'll smooth that out after this."