VANCOUVER, British Columbia — After his team defeated Slovakia to earn a spot in the gold-medal game against the United States, coach Mike Babcock earned a laugh when he called Team Canada the underdog; a shot across the bow of Team USA GM Brian Burke's constant downplaying of his team.
But here are the facts: The Americans are undefeated. They're the No. 1 seed. They have the tournament's best goaltender in Ryan Miller. So is Canada actually the underdog?
"No, they're not," said Burke. "We are. We're not playing a card here, folks. All the pressure is on Canada."
Team USA forward David Backes split the difference: "I think you're going to see a dogfight."
No kidding. Since they last met, the Canadians changed their goalie and shuffled their lines. The result has been a Team Canada 2.0 that rolled the Russians and dominated the Slovaks for 51 minutes before a frightening final nine. They enter the game with revenge against the Americans on their minds; but more importantly, with a chance to fulfill the dreams of a hockey-mad nation, eager to see its team win gold on home ice.
Yes, there's enormous, unfathomable pressure. But Babcock expects his team to embrace it.
"If you've been in the Olympic village like I have, you've seen people totally elated and you've seen people totally crushed," he said. "To me, the best part is the pressure."
Here are five factors that will mean gold for Team Canada.
1. Create Adversity
The Americans have never trailed in this tournament. Not for a second.
Have they faced pressure? Sure. Have they faced the adversity that comes with desperately needing a goal in a close game late in the third period? No, and checking the ages on this roster, there's no telling how this group would react to it. Get a lead, and let the crowd carry the momentum like a hurricane behind a sailing vessel. Then watch the United States face real adversity for the first time in the tournament, in its most pulse-quickening game.
2. Hope This Is Luongo's Moment
When Team Canada made the switch from Marty Brodeur to Roberto Luongo after the loss to Team USA, it gave the Vancouver Canucks netminder a career-defining moment in the spotlight after failing to live up to his elite stature in the NHL playoffs.
The concern for the gold-medal game? The soft goal. He surrendered one against the Russians. He surrendered one against the Slovaks, and it gave a dead team a resurrection. Brodeur was replaced for making three mistakes that led to U.S. goals in Round 1; Luongo can't offer them the same charity.
3. Crash Miller, and Keep Crashing Him
The Americans have one advantage in this game, and his name is Ryan Miller. He has been the best player on the ice in each of their wins. He's the calming influence in their lineup.
The Canadians have to make his life miserable for three periods. They mercilessly screened Jaroslav Halak in the win over Slovakia, tipping shots and collecting rebounds with players like Ryan Getzlaf, Brendan Morrow and Jonathan Toews. Getting traffic in front of Miller won't be easy thanks to an underrated American defense. But the Buffalo Sabres goalie himself said international rules and officiating may put out a welcome mat for Canadian crashers.
"It's up to the referees to watch the crease, and we'll see how the international rules affect it. They can be in the crease and get a warning. If something happens, it's not necessarily a waved-off goal," said Miller. "We'll see how they handle things. I'm sure the refs will be well aware of what's going on, because they came to the net hard in all their games."
4. Forget the Podium; Own the Zone
For 51 minutes, the Slovaks couldn't get a sniff of offense against Canada. For three periods, the Russians couldn't find their offensive spark thanks to the Canadian forwards forechecking their defensemen into oblivion and Canadian defensemen smartly pinching when necessary. This lineup has been able to control play and tempo in elimination-round wins, and must do so against an American offense that has gotten better as the tournament has continued. Team USA has been possessing the puck better the deeper it has gotten; Canada needs to break the cycle.
5. Never Stop Playing
In the frantic final minutes of Canada's 3-2 semifinal victory over Slovakia, Babcock tried to get his team going — but they didn't answer. "I tried to put on the gas. 'Let's go after them, let's go after them.' And it didn't happen," he said. "I remember in the Stanley Cup finals, you got guys that play with poise all year long, and then they're playing like little kids.
"I was scared to death when [the fans] started going, 'We want the U.S.' with 14 minutes left."
Babcock said the team "stopped playing" after Roberto Luongo let in a soft goal. It has happened before in this tournament, during the first U.S. game, when every moment of momentum was undercut by an American goal, a huge Ryan Miller save or a misplay by Martin Brodeur. Team Canada would get frustrated, and its tempo would slow.
It's going to be an emotional powder keg in Hockey Place. The Americans score early, or hang around too long, and the tension could be overwhelming. Team Canada can't let up, because when it's motivated, it's the best team in the tournament, bar none.
Which, we guess, makes them the favorite.
- Ryan Miller
- Mike Babcock