By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; D05
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- For the past week, throngs have choked the streets and sidewalks along Vancouver's waterfront, singing, chanting, reveling. Games-goers have sported lots of red -- red mittens, red scarves, red jackets.
But mostly, it seems, they wear red hockey jerseys.
Canada might dominate curling, excel in speed skating and carry medal hopes in figure skating. But the pulse of the nation races for the Olympic hockey tournament, and it kicks into gear with no small bit of excitement Sunday.
Beginning at noon here, Russia faces the Czech Republic. After that, Canada squares off against the United States, and then, Sweden meets Finland. The locals already are referring to it as Super Sunday, but it won't feel super at all if the United States were to pull an upset.
"We know we're the villain up here," U.S. Coach Ron Wilson said. "No one's going to be cheering for us, outside of the Americans. It's going to be a hostile crowd."
The winner of the Canada-USA contest will lock up the Group A title and earn a bye into the quarterfinals. The loser likely will have to win another qualifying-round game to advance.
Canadian fans nearly went into cardiac arrest when Switzerland took Canada into a shootout before falling by a 3-2 score Thursday. A loss to the underdog Americans would be a cause for national panic.
The pressure on Canada is "unremitting and unrelenting," Team USA General Manager Brian Burke said. "I can't imagine how they are going to function in this environment, but they'll find a way."
The last time the two squads played, Canada beat the United States in the gold medal final at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. In 15 previous Olympic meetings, Canada has won 10 games and the United States just two, with three ties. The Americans have lost six straight meetings dating from 1960 at Squaw Valley, Calif.
With an average age about five years younger than the '06 Olympic team, this year's Team USA is fresh-faced, fast and aggressive -- but lacking the firepower and star power of a Canadian squad led by Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.
"We've seen that they can put the puck into the net," U.S. forward David Backes told the Vancouver Sun. "We almost have to worry about being embarrassed."
Said U.S. forward Patrick Kane: "You look at some of the rosters: Russia, Canada, Sweden; they have so many superstars [and] you have Finland, too. And here we are, with more hard-working guys."
The hard-working Americans have cruised through the tournament thus far, earning a 3-1 opening victory over the Swiss on Tuesday and a 6-1 win against Norway on Thursday. Goaltender Ryan Miller has been strong, and a host of Americans have contributed goals.
The Canadians opened by thrashing Norway, 8-0, but Thursday's thriller against the Swiss provided a gut check. It took a shootout goal by Crosby to secure the victory.
"To go through that desperation and tight hockey -- we are going to have to get better as we move forward," Crosby said. "That gold medal game isn't tomorrow, and that's the good news."
Sunday's game will pit teammates from 10 NHL teams against one another. Canada's Crosby and Marc-André Fleury will meet Penguins teammate Brooks Orpik. Meantime, Canada assistant coach Lindy Ruff, the Buffalo Sabres head coach, will watch his star goalie, Miller, compete for Team USA.
"He is right at the top of his game," Ruff said.
Miller surely will strive to match Thursday's effort by Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller, who stopped 44 of 46 shots for the Swiss. Miller's U.S. teammates, meantime, will try to avoid turnovers and intimidation by the host team. Even Wilson, the former Washington Capitals coach who now guides the Toronto Maple Leafs, doesn't seem to know exactly what he has. He joked after the U.S. team's opener that he had so many guys named "Ryan" he couldn't keep them all straight.
"We are a chemistry experiment," he said, "that's going to take some time."