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Canadians taking pivotal game in stride

by Dan Rosen
VANCOUVER -- Living in the athlete's village has afforded the Canadian hockey team a chance to soak up a part of the Olympic experience that the rest of us will never know. It has also allowed them to feel insulated from the enormous pressure they face.

"We're not exposed to everything that is going on around us," Sidney Crosby said.

In saying that, the Canadians fully comprehend how Sunday's pivotal game against Team USA will be viewed around their nation.

It's huge, enormous and some could argue even monumental, even though a medal isn't on the line and neither team will be wiped out of the tournament with a loss.

"Everybody is putting it on their calendar in Canada as a big game," Corey Perry said.

Team Canada has to forget all that when the puck drops.

A bye into the quarterfinals is what's really at stake. Bragging rights and pride, yeah, they matter, but they're also fleeting. Not having to play that extra game in this tournament, well that's something tangible, a realistic goal the Canadians can use for motivation.

"It's only bragging rights for a couple of days anyway," coach Mike Babcock said. "We want to be successful and they want to be successful. Obviously the path to where we both want to go is a lot easier if you win (Sunday)."

Except, nothing is ever easy for this Canadian team because nothing they do is on the small scale. Every line combination, defensive pair, goaltending decision, mistake, goal, shot, pass and power play seem as if they're magnified under an electron microscope.

A nation of GMs plus the large contingent of North American media here in Vancouver and those writing or talking about it across the continent are changing their Team Canada report card grades on a daily or perhaps even hourly basis.

"We're excited about it. It's two good hockey teams trying to clinch a round-robin lead to get that bye into the quarterfinals. That's an important thing, so that's how I'm looking at it." -- Canada captain Scott Niedermayer
There just isn't enough insulation to shield the players when they already know the professors are out there.

"It's exciting, but everybody is critiquing it," Perry said. "But you're not trying to take 30 million people and put them on your shoulders."

They're not because it'd impossible and it's not the right time for them to try that anyway. That's why the players are choosing to view this for what it is, not for what their fans and proud countrymen and women want it to be.

With a win, Canada gets two days off and a chance to scout its next opponent, whatever country it may be, in Tuesday's qualification playoffs. With a loss, Canada may have to play Tuesday and face elimination for the first time here.

"There is a lot at stake; it's just not all at stake," team captain Scott Niedermayer said. "The way the tournament is laid out, both teams are going to play another day, but in this short of a tournament you want to approach each game to be at your best. You want to use that, continue to build and get better.

"I think everybody is excited about it," he added. "We're excited about it. It's two good hockey teams trying to clinch a round-robin lead to get that bye into the quarterfinals. That's an important thing, so that's how I'm looking at it."

What Babcock wants most out is to see his team gel, the lines stick and the defense pairs work. He wants to see the power play click and a more aggressive and attacking team overall.

Winning is important and is obviously the end goal, but improving is still the most important thing for any team at this stage of the tournament.

That unrelenting pressure many fear could or perhaps even will eventually pop Canada's insulated bubble -- well, it should have nothing to do with how the hosts play on Sunday.

"The main thing in this tournament is to keep getting better, and if you win your games you go home happy," Babcock said.

Crosby said it's fair to compare Sunday's game against the Americans to a Game 3 in a playoff series. It's a swing game and it will be heavily scrutinized, but nothing will be won or lost.

"With each game it's going to get bigger and you're going to see more desperation," he said. "As we go along here it gets tougher and tougher and that's basically the way you look at a playoff series, too. You get closer to those important must-win games. They all feel like must-wins; it just becomes a little more with each one."

Canada's not there yet, though you'd never know if you ask a Canadian fan.

"We also have a lot of pride in the way we play and being Canadian," Crosby said. "We have high expectations and we know that every game is important, but I think we are able to separate that and make sure we don't let these other things creep into our minds."

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