Saturday, February 27, 2010

Canada hangs on for dear life, USA-Canada dream match-up set

If you caught the frantic finish, that was something else. Who ever would've believed that Canada up three against Slovakia with 20 minutes left wasn't a lock for the gold medal game Sunday versus Team USA? Sure. They held on by the skin of their teeth, eeking out a 3-2 win over the feisty Slovaks who just wouldn't quit despite no Marian Gaborik the final period. Insert Ranger fire alarms in 5...4...3...2...1.

For 50 minutes, Slovakia still trailed by the same three-goal margin that made the Canadians look like a shoe in for NBC's dream match-up. Then things got interesting when Roberto Luongo allowed a clunker to pinching Lubomir Visnovsky, whose close backhand slipped past the Vancouver netminder with under nine minutes left. Suddenly with more jump than they had the first 40 in which they only tested Louie nine times, the more confident Slovaks won all the battles. Not shockingly, they took more shots (12 or 13) in the unpredictable third no one saw coming.

Especially a bunch of confident Canadians who chanted, "We Want USA, We Want USA," with under 10 minutes to play. Even when their country still tried to attack, Jaroslav Halak made the stops and his D led by Zdeno Chara transitioned the puck through the neutral zone without a problem. Suddenly, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra, Ziggy Palffy, Michal Handzus, Jozef Stumpel and Tomas Kopecky became dangerous. A couple of nights removed from one of the most heartless performances ever against the same loaded roster, here was a persistent team who exemplified what these Winter Games are about.

The stronger commitment continued to pay dividends when Handzus batted a loose Richard Zednik backhand wraparound out of mid-air past Luongo, stunning everyone wearing Canadian colors. Two goals in less than three and a half minutes had cut it to one with still four and change left. No longer were there any chants other than "Go Canada Go, Go Canada Go," by some antsy red and white fans who had to be dying at the thought of possibly being taken to sudden death.

Slovakia did everything in their power to get it tied, even forcing Luongo to come up with a couple of tough stops from in tight on Hossa. It all came down to the final 60 seconds which were just as wild and crazy as one would expect. Maybe too much so for Canada, who couldn't get out of their zone.

With Halak on the bench for an extra attacker, a couple of excellent keeps including one by Visnovsky gave them their big chance to force four-on-four overtime. A give-and-go was worked to Hossa, whose low shot from the right circle caromed off Luongo to Demitra with three ticks remaining. Earlier, Louie's teammate was stoned twice on a loose scramble. This time, with Roberto dead to rights, his shot didn't go. Somehow, the sprawling hometown favorite kept it out along with maybe an assist from the crossbar as time ran out, leaving Demitra heartbroken.

The veteran who's been banged up a lot this year had nothing to be ashamed of as did any of his 'mates with many on their final tour as he referred to it. They'd given Canada everything they could've wanted. When the two countries shook hands in still the finest tradition, Demitra and Luongo shared a laugh before the accomplished center and his proud team saluted their sticks to a relieved crowd. Canada did likewise to grant them their wish.

USA vs Canada for all the marbles. The greatest scenario NBC could've ever dreamed of. Who ever would've believed our country would be the only one left unbeaten looking to run the table and beat their North American rival twice for gold? Eight years ago, they took it on our home soil in Salt Lake. Now, the Americans have a chance to turn the tables in hostile territory much the way another Ron Wilson-led squad shocked Canada in 1996. Only this is much bigger.

Can the sizzling top line of Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and captain America Jamie Langenbrunner continue to dominate as they did earlier today combining for half the club's six tallies? Will two-goal scorer Patrick Kane get the better of Chicago 'mates Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook? Can muckers Ryan Malone, Dustin Brown, David Backes, Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan continue winning the battles in the trenches like they have all tournament long? Will Bobby Ryan burn his Duck teammates Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Scott Niedermayer? Can Ryan Kesler get the better of Louie? Will Brian Rafalski's magical Winter Games continue alongside Ryan Suter? And can Ryan Miller continue to prove that just maybe he's the best goalie in the game by outperforming both Martin Brodeur and Luongo?

All these questions and more won't get answered until 3 ET/12 PT Sunday at Hockey Canada Place. And like the rest, we can hardly wait. Drop the puck already!

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