Canada's Roberto Luongo (1) makes the save on Slovakia's Zigmund Palffy (L) as Canada's Brent Seabrook (7) and Joe Thornton (R) scramble during second period action in the men's hockey play-offs semifinal at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver, BC during the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Photograph by: Jean Levac, Canwest News Service
VANCOUVER -- The greatest hockey tournament in the world has come down to a border squabble, a continental divide.
The dream final is on: Canada versus the United States in the Olympic gold medal final, a rematch of the 2002 finale in Salt Lake City.
There is no other option.
The Canadians win, to crown these Games on the last day of competition with its most cherished medal -- hockey gold. Or,
The Americans win, amounting to a dirty-hockey-glove face wash from the next door neighbour.
Canada punched its ticket to the gold medal game after nearly blowing a 3-0 lead over Slovakia, surviving a serious scare to win 3-2 against a sneaky opponent Canadian players have no strong feelings for -- unlike the passionate matches already played at this tournament between Canada and the Americans (a 5-3 USA win) and the Russians (7-4 for Canada).
In contrast to the wild assault of the Russians from the opening faceoff, Canada simply used its superior depth of talent to create a series of quality chances against the Slovaks in the first period. How winger Brenden Morrow missed a wide open net, he still doesn’t know, but Canada finally broke through with a pair of goals, just one minute, 47-seconds part, in the latter half of the period.
Unlike the Russians, who stubbornly attacked and turned pucks over to Canada’s delight, the Slovaks patiently sat back, cleared pucks and tried to make the occasional attack, usually by Marian Hossa. Play defence. Rope-a-dope. It was the Slovak’s only chance.
Their posture called for a more patient approach by Canada, although the Canadians vowed not to let down after the emotional victory over the Russians.
“We expect it ourselves,” winger Jarome Iginla said. “There are a lot of reasons to be jacked up.”
The crowd was ‘jacked up’ twice on Canada’s first goal. Once, when Patrick Marleau deflected the Shea Weber point shot past Slovak goaltender Jaroslav Halak, and then a second time when a video review judged ruled that Marleau’s stick was indeed below the crossbar. As referee Jyri Ronn thrust his arm in a signal to centre ice, the Canada Hockey Place crowd erupted, on its feet, all red-and-white-and screaming.
Next goal: same MO. This time, Chris Pronger flips and Morrow tips -- redirecting a floater past Halak.
The Slovaks only made it this far by hanging around in low scoring games, against the likes of Russia and Sweden. To go down by two goals to Canada, a team can roll four lines of NHL stars, is a bit much to ask the Slovak ancients like Pavol Demitra, Jozef Stumpel and Miro Satan to make up. And they nearly did.
From his knees, giant centre Ryan Getzlaf scored with 3:06 left in the second period to give Canada a 3-0 lead, which everyone in the building assumed was good enough. The Slovaks assumed otherwise.
From an impossible angle, Lubomir Visnovsky broke Roberto Luongo’s shutout late in the third period, giving the underdogs life. Then, when Patrice Bergeron went for the hit instead of the puck, Richard Zednik snuck in front with a backhand; Michael Handzus swatted the rebound past Luongo pull Slovakia within one with 4:43 remaining. Canada had to survive a furious late assault to win.
Since the NHL first fully joined the Olympic tournament in 1998, Slovakia is the only one of the significant hockey nations not to have reached a final. This was a medal of sorts -- just reaching the final four. Today, it will get a chance for an honest to goodness medal as it plays for bronze against Finland, while Canada and the USA will practice in preparation for the final matchup fans around here have been penciling in for days.
Now it’s in cold ink.
Canada versus the USA.
Eight years ago, an older, slower American team wasn’t a match for Canada, led by the likes of Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Joe Sakic.
In the time that has elapsed, Lemieux, Sakic and Yzerman have all retired, with Stevie Y now charged with the responsibility of picking the roster that has evolved at this tournament from a group of household names into a determined team.
And when this new era of stars stares in the looking glass, the reflection more closely resembles the U.S. than any other nation here. The Americans are a little younger, a little less experienced, a little faster maybe. Backed by goaltender Ryan Miller, a worthy opponent in the gold medal game.
Even before the Canada-Slovakia tilt, Miller had promised the United States would be problematic for the winner. This, after the U.S. had pounded the Finns 6-1.
“We’re a tough team to hang with,” Miller said. “Hopefully we can put that kind of performance on the ice on Sunday.”
Said USA head coach Ron Wilson, thrilled to get a break from the Maple Leafs bench for a couple of weeks:
“I want to help these kids realize a dream.”
The Canadians have a dream of their own.
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