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VANCOUVER -- In all reality, this was the dream final from the very beginning.
Canada vs. Russia would have been hyped by the Canadian media for all the history and skill, but Canada vs. the United States for the gold medal on Sunday will bring about a divide so massive and intense that an entire continent could shake.
It's a pair of North American teams on North American ice playing for world hockey supremacy.
Hours after the Americans fulfilled their obligation by crushing Finland, the Canadians survived a major scare before finally beating Slovakia, 3-2 on Friday night. The Slovaks scored twice late in the third period, but it wasn't enough so they'll play for the bronze against Finland on Saturday (10 p.m. ET).
"The Russian thing was very exciting just because that's what we grew up thinking about all the time, but I think the U.S.-Canada thing is reality," Canada coach Mike Babcock said. "I think you're going to see a lot of this in the future. They've got a good young team and they're rolling. They just crushed the other team today, so it should be a lot of fun and they must be the favorite coming in."
That last line drew a lot of laughter in the press conference room because it's just too hard to fathom. Even though Team USA beat the Canadians earlier in the tournament, nobody is going to be laying mountains of money down on them to do it again.
Then again, after watching the Canadians run around in the final eight or so minutes Friday night, it may not be such a bad bet.
It was panic in the streets -- or rather, on the ice -- after Lubomir Visnovsky scored on a backhand off Roberto Luongo's left leg with 8:25 remaining.
Canada was in control up until that point, leading 3-0 on goals by Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow and Ryan Getzlaf, but nearly folded under the pressure.
Michal Handzus batted the puck into the net with 4:53 left to make things really interesting. Luongo, who made 19 saves, had to come up with arguably the biggest one of his life on Pavol Demitra in the waning seconds to preserve the victory. Demitra was alone at the doorstep with a wide open net to shoot at, but Luongo dove over, reached up and got just enough of his catching glove on Demitra's shot to make it sail wide of the net. A crisis was officially averted.
"When we got scored on, it was amazing how we couldn't make a pass or a play," Babcock said. "I thought we really showed a lot of nerves. The Slovaks stuck to their plan and kept pushing, and in the end we feel real fortunate to have the opportunity to do what we came here for, and that's to play for the gold medal."
Eight years ago Canada won its first gold medal in 50 years with a 5-2 win over Team USA on American ice in Salt Lake City. Current Canadian players Jarome Iginla, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Martin Brodeur were on that team.
Now the Yanks will have a chance to exact a measure of revenge on Canadian ice by trying to win their first gold medal since the miracle in 1980.
Team USA already took down Canada in this tournament by a 5-3 margin last Sunday, but Canada felt it won that game in every which way but the scoreboard. The Canadians outshot the Americans 45-23 and for extended periods exerted their physical will, too.
Both teams came away from that game with confidence. Canada wiped out Germany, Russia and Slovakia by a combined score of 18-7. The U.S. beat Switzerland and Finland by a combined 8-1 and goalie Ryan Miller hasn't allowed a goal in the last 111 minutes and 38 seconds.
"You know what, it's going to be intense; it's going to be emotional," Sidney Crosby told NHL.com. "Look at the tournament game (the 5-3 win by USA in pool play), that's a pretty good idea of what to expect and more here in the final."
The intensity actually started early in the third period Friday when it seemed like everyone in the building was chanting "We want USA." The chant changed later in the period to, "We want the gold."
Then Slovakia stormed back and nobody was chanting anymore -- just sitting on pins and needles.
"The way I look at it, it's the rubber match," Babcock said. "They won the World Juniors, we won the women's gold and here's the rubber right here. They have a young team over there and they've done a good job and their goaltender is outstanding. I was asked a long time before this tournament, who are you nervous about? I always say the best goalie always makes you nervous. And I think that kid has been really good for them."
Jaroslav Halak had been really good for the Slovaks, too, but Canada opened a 2-0 lead in the first period on similar deflection goals by Marleau and Morrow. They were each in front of the net and never got touched by any of the Slovak defensemen.
The same thing happened on Canada's third goal when Getzlaf scored from the slot with a backhanded shot.
"We were not able to cover the players in front of our net," Slovakia coach Jan Filc said. "We were caught three times in very similar goals and that was the reason why we had to do everything in the couple of minutes toward the end."
They did it well and put a scare into the Canadians.
Can the Americans do the same? Can they do it again?
"I thought our whole group came unraveled at the end, but those are good experiences," Babcock said. "One of the things that happened the last two years at the World Championships (back-to-back losses in gold-medal games to Russia) was our team stopped playing and in the end didn't win. This is a great example of if you stop playing you're not going to win. You have to play the full 60 minutes. The teams are too good."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com
SCORING SVK 0 0 2 - 2 CAN 2 1 0 - 3
1. CAN, Marleau (Weber, Niedermayer) 13:30
2. CAN, Morrow (Pronger, Getzlaf) 15:17
Penalties - None
3. CAN, Getzlaf (Perry, Pronger) 16:54 (PPG)
Penalties - Doughty CAN (hooking) 1:29, Chara SVK (roughing) 6:08, Zednik SVK (holding the stick) 16:34.