United States, Canada meet again with men's hockey gold medal on the line

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; D13

Fifty years ago, the United States defeated Canada to win the Olympic gold medal in hockey, an upset victory in Squaw Valley, Calif., that has since been obscured by the "Miracle on Ice" of 1980. Those two results are the only men's hockey golds for the Americans, and before last Sunday, the United States hadn't beaten Canada in the Olympics in half a century.

Eight years ago, Canada beat the United States to win the Olympic gold medal in hockey, a thorough 5-2 victory that, to so many north of the border, restored order to the sport's universe. In seven Winter Games between 1920 and 1952, Canada had won six hockey golds. In the next 12 Olympics before 2002 in Salt Lake City, the Canadians mustered no better than three silvers.

Sunday, that rivalry -- and there is little doubt that's what it is, given the proximity of the countries and the players' interactions in the NHL -- is renewed again.

"We understand that nobody remembers who took second," U.S. forward Jamie Langenbrunner told reporters Saturday in Vancouver. "We know from a USA standpoint about 1980 and 1960. You don't remember 2002, or whatever other years there were medals."

This time, the matchup is on Canadian soil, at what will undoubtedly be a delirious Canada Hockey Place. Indeed, there is no more aptly named building to determine the champion in what is considered this nation's sport, and there likely has never been as much pressure on a Canadian team to win.

"The Canadians view this as their game," Team USA general manager Brian Burke told reporters, "and they view this game tomorrow as planting the flag on a peak. It's huge."

The Americans enter this game in a bit of an odd spot. The United States beat the Canadians 5-3 last Sunday, a result that soured the mood of an entire nation. Thus, the Americans are the only perfect team in the tournament: Five games, all regulation victories. The two teams' semifinal wins were starkly different: The United States crushed Finland with six first-period goals in a 6-1 win, while Canada withstood a Slovakian onslaught in the final five minutes to hang on, 3-2.

And the United States will, oddly, be the "home team" Sunday. Yet Team USA is still a decided underdog.

The feeling around the game is different this time because Canada transformed after the loss to the Americans -- a loss in which Canada fired 45 shots on net, the Americans 23, making American goaltender Ryan Miller, to this point, the likely choice as the most valuable player of the tournament.

"We were too easy on Miller last time," Canadian Coach Mike Babcock told reporters. "We won't be this time."

With his team relegated to a play-in game against Germany it needed to win to even reach the quarterfinals, Babcock pulled legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur -- one of just four holdovers from Canada's gold medal-winning team from 2002 in Salt Lake City -- and replaced him with Roberto Luongo, who plays for the hometown Vancouver Canucks. The Canadians responded with an 8-2 thumping of Germany, then put an entire country at ease with a 7-3 thrashing of Russia, which had beaten Canada in the last two world championships.

Those results, to the U.S. team, were hardly surprising because of Canada's talent. So Canada has what it wanted: A rematch. The United States is fine with that.

"We all talked, 'Wouldn't it be nice?' and now we have the opportunity," Miller said. "We have the talent. We have some youthful excitement, we have the right kind of veteran players."

So the Americans have a clear understanding of what's at hand: Canada lost last week, had to stave off an inferior opponent in the semifinals, and is still the favorite. But it doesn't mean the Americans' goal is any different.

"When you go into a tournament like this, your goal is to be playing on the last day," Burke said. "I'm really proud of our guys. We have one more task to fulfill."

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