SOCHI, Russia – If not quite the underdog, Drew Doughty believes, at the very least, that the Canadians are being overlooked, doubted and probably even overly dissected heading into Friday's semifinal matchup with the Americans.
"I think a lot of people are counting us out," said Doughty. "If everyone wants to count us out, we're going to use that as motivation."
Doughty wouldn't go quite so far as to label Team Canada as the underdog, but it's clear that the overwhelming degree of scrutiny has some members of the squad feeling as though they've been doubted just a little too much. "We don't see ourselves as the underdog," Doughty said, the defender leading the Canadians with four goals. "I think both teams are really evenly matched. I don't know who I'd give the upper hand to at this point. I'm obviously more confident in my team than I am in theirs..."
Like the Americans, Canada has yet to lose in these Olympics, but unlike their rivals to the south, they failed to exactly dominate in victory, scratching out close wins over the Norwegians (3-1), Finns (2-1 overtime) and Latvians (2-1), the last of which saw the two teams tied for most of the first 53 minutes of regulation.
Head coach Mike Babcock has stressed that his team simply improves each and every day of the two-week tournament, pointing to Wednesday's struggle with the Latvians as a needed bit of adversity. It's evident, however, that the best of this Canadian team has yet to emerge. Whether it will in time for the 2010 gold medal game rematch remains in question.
"Yeah we're close," said Jonathan Toews after the quarterfinal win over Latvia, "not quite there yet though. Next game."
Scoring concerns up front remain the most pressing issue.
The Canadian forward contingent has combined for just six goals - or one more than Phil Kessel has all by himself here in Sochi - despite an overwhelming level of offensive talent. Wednesday's quarterfinal could be construed as a step in the right direction. Though they snuck just two by Kristers Gudlevskis, they managed nearly 60 shots and had numerous opportunities.
Sidney Crosby, who had a breakaway in the opening minute, remains the most notable Canadian forward yet to score, but he's joined by Jonathan Toews, Corey Perry, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Chris Kunitz, Martin St. Louis, Matt Duchene, and Patrice Bergeron – essentially everyone but Jeff Carter, Jamie Benn, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Sharp.
Symmetry appears to finally be forming though.
Unlike the previous four games, which saw the lines differ just about every night, Babcock will keep his forward combinations intact for the tilt against the Americans – save for the injured John Tavares (leg) – hopeful that they'll translate into actual production with elimination on the line.
"You can talk scoring chances till you're blue in the face, who cares? The score is on the board, and so we've just got to find a way to keep doing what we're doing," said Babcock.
"I think we like the fact that we're getting a lot of chances in and around the net," said Crosby, who remains alongside Kunitz and Bergeron. "We trust they're going to go in a little bit more if we keep getting those. I think we just try to stay the course and make sure that we focus on burying those."
They'll have to do so against the seemingly unflappable Jonathan Quick. A rock for the L.A. Kings in the postseason – he has a .940 save percentage combined in the past two springs – Quick has stopped 72 of 77 shots in three starts for Team USA, fronted by an offence that's managed 20 goals in four games.
"When he gets hot, when he makes some big saves early, he seems to become unbeatable, said Doughty, who captured the Cup with Quick in 2012. "And that's why we've got to get one early on him. The only way we're going to score on him is we've got to get pucks up high and we've got to get screens in front and tips."
Countering Quick will be Carey Price – who has stopped 48 of 51 shots – and a stiff defensive Canadian unit that's yielded just two even-strength goals all tournament and average of fewer than 19 shots against. If there's been an obvious strength to Canada's game on the bigger Olympic ice, it's been the ability to defend and defend by controlling the possession of the puck. Continuing that against an American attack fronted by Kessel, who leads the tournament with eight points, will be a new and far more difficult challenge.
Crosby was among the group of Canadian players who took in the Americans' classic tilt with Russia in the preliminary round and was struck, above all else, with just how fast they were as a group. He and his teammates believe they're ready for such a fight though even if others aren't quite so sure.
"At this point whether we beat three favourites 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," he said.
"Our group's real confident," Babcock added. "We like what we've done. We like how our team is. We think we're set up good right now. And that, to me, is the most important thing."