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With gold at stake, USA-Canada set for epic battle

by John Dellapina
United States (5-0-0-0, 22 GF, 6 GA) vs. Canada (4-0-1-1, 32 GF, 14 GA)

What to watch -- Forty-two NHL studs -- with a Vezina Trophy-winner sitting on each bench as the back-up goaltender -- going at it with reckless abandon for 60 or up to 80 minutes on a North American-sized rink with the home side defending its national sporting honor and the visiting neighbor continuing its quest for lasting hockey respect.

Don't tune in late or you're liable to miss 10 thunderous bodychecks on the first shift. Don't blink or you might fail to see a one-time touch pass right on the tape at blurring speed. Don't count on anything other than minute after minute of rollicking, rivalry-fueled hockey that only reinforces what everybody already should know: Nobody puts on a show or puts more on the line than NHL players.

Ryan Miller has been the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender for Team USA since before it touched down in Vancouver two weeks ago. Roberto Luongo got the first-game start as a nod to his status as a Vancouver Canuck, but was supposed to back up Martin Brodeur. But when Brodeur was beaten by the Americans, 5-3, in pool play, Canada turned to Luongo, who had an easy qualification-round win over Germany and also beat Russia, but had to make a game-saving stop on Pavol Demitra to prevent a late-game collapse against Slovakia in the semis.

There is a reason that the men's ice hockey final is the final event at the Winter Olympics. That reason will be on full display this afternoon at 12:15 p.m. local time, 3:15 p.m. ET.

Team Reports:

Canada --
This has hardly been the march to a coronation that many expected before the tournament began.

Canada stunningly was extended to a shootout against Switzerland, which Sidney Crosby and Brodeur pulled out, and lost to Team USA in group play. And after obliterating overmatched Germany in the quarterfinals and blasting Russia, Canada survived a major scare when Slovakia came within a desperate Luongo save with 8 seconds left of erasing a 3-0 deficit in Friday’s semifinal.

Through six games, the Canadians have played stretches of awe-inspiring hockey that prompted Slovak star Marian Hossa to compare them with the legendary Soviet teams of the '70s and '80s. Despite being unable to prevail over Ryan Miller's goaltending, Canada's performance against Team USA last Sunday fell into that impressive category.

But Canada also has had some inexplicable hiccups that have prompted head coach Mike Babcock to repeatedly shake up his lineup and change starting goaltenders. And while Brodeur has three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal on his resume, Luongo has yet to win such a championship.

United States --
GM Brian Burke told anybody who would listen -- over and over, in fact -- that his young team was a decided underdog upon which no money would be wagered here. Folks probably stopped believing him right around the time Miller made 42 saves to beat Canada last Sunday.

The Americans have been more consistent and focused to this point, never having trailed in any game so far. They hammered the opponent (Norway) they were supposed to pound, patiently outlasted dangerous Switzerland twice and did what was necessary to upset Canada. Then, stunningly, Team USA destroyed Finland with a six-goal first period in the semifinals.

Miller has been stupendous and will need to be one more time. The best goaltender in the NHL this season in the estimation of many, the Buffalo Sabres' netminder leads these Games in both goals against average (1.04) and save percentage (.954). And he hasn't allowed a goal in his last 111:38 -- since Sidney Crosby beat him late in the third period of the pool play finale.

When Patrick Kane erupted for two goals against Finland, it meant that just about every American was doing the job for which Burke had selected him.

Still, even if it is the No. 1 seed as a result of pool play and gets to wear its blue sweaters, Team USA remains the underdog going into this game. And unless and until it wins gold, its predominantly young team can be questioned about whether it has the big-game gumption required to do so.

Total NHL players on the rosters --
All 46 -- This is an NHL All-Star Game played at the intensity level of the NHL Playoffs.

Puck Drop -- If the gold medal is to come down to subtle differences, consider this one: American centers Ryan Kesler (79.3 percent) and Joe Pavelski (69.6) have been the two best faceoff men in the tournament. Of course, Canada has been pretty strong on the draw as well, with Joe Thornton (5th at 65.3 percent), Sidney Crosby (6th at 64.3 percent) and Jonathan Toews (8th at 62.1 percent) all ranking among the top 10.

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