By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Semi-finals featuring countries that share borders, a deep passion for ice hockey and a competitive hatred are sure to bring the buzz back to an Olympic men’s event still reeling from Russia’s shock exit.
The men’s ice hockey gold medal will be the last decided in Sochi, handed out just hours before Sunday’s closing ceremonies and the host nation will not be part of the excitement after crashing out in the quarter-finals.
As Russia slowly get over the disappointment of their exit, the rest of the sport’s fraternity are preparing for a pair of intriguing gold-medal rematches on Friday that could provide some of the most memorable moments of these Games.
SPECIAL SECTION: Olympics 2014
North American neighbors Canada and the United States will meet in a rematch of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic final won by the Canadians on a golden goal from Sidney Crosby.
The other semi-final is also a gold-medal rematch with Finland and Sweden facing off just as they did in the 2006 Turin final won by the Swedes.
“2010 is all over with and we’re on a new opportunity both for them and for us,” said Canadian head coach Mike Babcock. “The teams are different.
“You have an opportunity right now to make memories for the rest of your life. That’s just what this is about.”
Certainly there will be no mysteries surrounding either contest with players, coaches and fans keenly aware of what each team will bring to the rink.
Every player on the American and Canadian rosters earn a living in the National Hockey League and in many cases are team mates who will return to the same locker rooms next week to continue their Stanley Cup quests.
The Canada-United States semi-final will very much resemble a house divided.
The same men who stand shoulder-to-shoulder and embrace each other as brothers will suddenly be the hated enemy standing in the path to Olympic glory.
No one will know better what Crosby is capable of than American coach Dan Bylsma who just happens to be the Canadian captain’s coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Jeff Carter, who has three goals for Canada, will try to beat his Los Angeles Kings netminder Jonathan Quick while American sniper Max Pacioretty will attempt do the same against Canadian goaltender Carey Price.
“Obviously he (Quick) is one of the best goalies in the game,” said Carter. “We’re going to have to be on our game to get a couple past him.
“When he’s on his game, he’s one of the best.”
Among hockey purists, Russia represents the traditional rivals for Canada and the United States.
For Canadians the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets and for Americans the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic ‘Miracle on Ice’ remain landmark moments in their sporting histories.
But for many fans the real rivalry has shifted to Canada and the United States.
Many of the players on both teams have spent their entire lives, from minor hockey, through college and the junior world championships, battling each other for trophies and medals.
While the Canada-United States rivalry continues to evolve, Sweden vs Finland is a blood feud centuries in the making.
“It goes way back,” said Sweden’s Alex Steen. “There have been some real classic games between the two countries and not just hockey games but all sorts of different sporting events.
“It is definitely a special feeling going up against the Finns.”
The hockey rivalry between the two Scandinavian nations is among the sporting world’s most fierce.
When Finland defeated Sweden in Stockholm in 1995 to win the world championship for the first time the team received a fighter jet escort home as the country erupted in wild celebration.
Sweden has twice won Olympic gold, at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway and again in 2006.
The Finns have never stood atop the podium but have claimed medals from four of the last five Winter Games.
Finland’s Teemu Selanne, one of the game’s all-time great scorers, is playing in a record-equalling sixth Olympics and having already won bronze and silver medals would like nothing better than to complete his collection with a gold.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)