USA Hockey: The moment we’ve all been waiting for

Four years ago, when the USA hockey team fell to Canada in Vancouver, there was but one feeling left after all the anger, heartache and dejection had worn off: ambition. Let’s play those dudes again.

The Americans, after all, had beaten their rivals from the north just a week before playing them for the Gold Medal. When the Canadians answered back seven days later, it merely knotted things at one. Touché, thought the US. But checkmate was the ruling.

And with that, the game board was folded into its box and put away, out of reach and out of sight on the top shelf in the living room. For four years at least, there would be no rematch. Other games were brought out to play in the intervening months, but none as exciting as the one suspended from cycle. The World Championships and World Juniors, for all their hockey glory, simply can’t touch the Olympics.

No other tournament pits the best versus the best. No other tournament creates acrimony out of fraternity, fraternity out of acrimony. No other tournament constructs such a castle in the sky, where Patrick Kane is battling Jonathan Toews, and Phil Kessel is dishing the puck to Max Pacioretty.

But forget all that, and realize this: no other tournament is the gold standard for international excellence. There is no greater authority on supremacy. If you win the Olympics, you’re the best in the world. Period. What other hockey tournament can say that?

Now, four years removed from Vancouver, the game board has been taken off the shelf and dusted off. It’s been spread out again across the living room floor, and the pieces laid back into place. Slovenia and Austria replaced Germany and Belarus at the table, but the players remained mostly the same. The best ones always show up for this.

Quickly, the field has been whittled down from 12 teams to four. Russia has been knocked off the board. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have, too. The foursome still standing comprises hockey’s elite: Sweden, Finland, USA and Canada. The latter two play each other Friday in the semifinals. Four years later, justice has been served.

For the US, the primary goal entering Sochi was to win gold. But the Americans had something else on their minds as well, something more immediate, more fervid. Revenge. If the desire to win gold resonated in their heart, the craving to beat Canada was palpable in their gut.

But a rematch wasn’t guaranteed. Unlike 2010, when the US found itself in the same group as Canada, the two countries were split up for the first week of the tournament in Sochi. With a host of capable teams muddying the path between the North American neighbors, there was some work to do to orchestrate another showdown.

And some luck to be had. Think about all the little pieces that had to fall into place to make Friday’s game possible. Think about all that could have gone wrong.

What if that Fedor Tyutin goal had counted and Russia had beat the US in regulation? The Americans would have wound up the five-seed and faced a play-in game versus Norway before a quarterfinal game versus Finland. Who’s to say Tuukka Rask doesn’t stop 37 American shots to send the US home early?

What if Finland had topped Canada in overtime, thus rendering Sydney Crosby and Co. the four seed? Would Russia have exacted some quarterfinal revenge against Canada and dashed their hopes of repeating as gold medalists? Even if Canada had won, would they get past Sweden in the semis? Would the US make it through Finland?

Heck, what if Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis had stopped Shea Weber’s power play blast late in the third on Wednesday night? What if forward Lauris Darzins scored his second of the game moments later to complete the most stunning Olympic upset since 1980? Now the talk would be centered on a semifinal game between the US and…Latvia.

Point is, US-Canada was never a sure thing. There were a lot of moveable pieces that had to be arranged in very specific ways to make Friday’s rematch a reality. But the stars have aligned in Sochi – in more ways than one.

This is what it’s all about. This is what the US came here for. Gold, yes, but revenge too. That’s why, if you’re like me, you found yourself quietly rooting for Canada to win on Wednesday. Sure, it would have been historically funny to see the loaded Canadians fall to Latvia, but so much would have been lost.

(Also, from a “Western World” perspective, what could be better than Canada and the US staging a show on Russian soil, while the hosts watch from the stands. This is why I half expected Vladimir Putin to up and cancel the rest of the Olympics after Russia lost to Finland on Wednesday. “Everyone OUTTTTT!!!”)

So say what you want about the US inviting disaster by hoping for a date with Canada. Would a semifinal game against Latvia have been an easier affair? Absolutely, but the US didn’t come to Sochi for a walk in the park. Moreover, there is an undeniable measure of legitimacy lost in going through Latvia, not Canada, to win gold. As Ric Flair once said, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!!”

Friday’s US-Canada game is as close to a gold-medal contest as you can get without any pendants in the building. It’s the US versus the Soviet Union in 1980, albeit with fewer political undertones. It’s the Red Wings versus the Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals, circa 1996. It’s the Yankees versus the Red Sox in the ALCS, circa 2004. It’s the two best teams, by popular consensus, playing the de facto championship, even as more awaits on the horizon.

Ask the 1980 Americans, or the ’96 Red Wings or the ’04 Red Sox. Why was winning it all so uniquely gratifying, so extraordinarily special? Because they beat their rivals to get there. Because they took the hardest path to glory, and the only path, they’ll tell you, they would have ever wanted to take.