NAGANO, Japan — If the U.S. defeats Canada on Monday in the final game of round-robin play at the men's Olympic hockey tournament, Canada won't be compelled to surrender Toronto or anything similarly valuable.
And if Canada, still smarting from its loss to the U.S. in the best-of-three World Cup finals in 1996, should avenge that defeat Monday, Americans won't have to learn the words to "O Canada," or start saying, "eh?" at the end of their sentences.
At stake are the seedings for the quarterfinal round of the tournament and a favorable matchup when single-elimination play begins Wednesday, nothing more. But for each team, nothing less than a victory will suffice.
"It's a taste of what the tournament is going to be all about," said defenseman Rob Blake of Canada and the Kings. "It's going to be very intense. The outcome means a lot for our confidence going into the final three games of the tournament, so you know the emotion is going to be there."
Canada, which has played strong fundamental hockey in defeating Belarus and Sweden, needs a tie or a victory to finish first in the four-team group and clinch a meeting against the last-place team in the other group, probably Kazakhstan. The U.S., which has struggled defensively in losing to Sweden and barely holding off fledgling power Belarus, needs a good performance to establish some self-assurance. The U.S. can still win the group if it wins by four goals.
"It should be a great hockey game," said U.S. Coach Ron Wilson, who was born in Canada. "It will be Canada's best against America's best. It will be interesting to see how both teams respond to the bigger ice surface; so far we've been a little bit out of our element.
"We understand the importance to Canada and Canadians because of the World Cup result. At the same time, we want to prove our World Cup victory wasn't a fluke. We're trying to sort things out hopefully on our way to the gold medal."
There's plenty to sort out for the U.S., whose defense has had problems holding up opponents' wingers on the extra 15 feet in width on the international-size rink. Brothers Kevin and Derian Hatcher of Pittsburgh and Dallas, respectively, have noticeably struggled on defense and, like their teammates, have strayed too often in the defensive zone.
"We haven't been real sharp, with jet lag and everything," Kevin Hatcher said. "But maybe it was good to get our first two games in within 24 hours to get our legs going."
They must also get their offense going, especially at even strength. Four of their five goals against Belarus resulted from power plays, including two five-on-three advantages. Defensemen have scored three of the seven U.S. goals, which is a good news-bad news scenario. While it's vital for the U.S. to have Chris Chelios (two goals) and Brian Leetch (one goal, one assist) contributing offensively, the forwards have yet to use their size and speed consistently to go to the net. The forwards must be more aggressive if the U.S. is to test Canada's rock-solid defense and distract goaltender Patrick Roy.
"We have to get back to basics," said U.S. goaltender Mike Richter, who has played well in both games. "The game against Canada is going to be a fairly simple, hard-fought game.
"When we did work really hard [against Belarus] and played responsible hockey, we dominated, when we don't, we can be dominated."
Thoughts of Monday's game have dominated the minds of Canadian hockey fans since the World Cup loss. Canada's roster was changed to correct defensive deficiencies it exhibited during the World Cup, and players such as Rob Zamuner, Chris Pronger and Joe Nieuwendyk have made significant contributions at Nagano.
"Canadians, because they've all played it, don't deal with losing [hockey games] very well," Canadian right wing Trevor Linden said. "We consider it our game and the Americans have gotten better and they served notice at the World Cup. It wasn't a pleasant feeling, for sure.
"You carry the flag for not only your country and its fans but for every Canadian player that played in the NHL or in the 1972 Summit Series [against the Soviet Union] or that played in the World Cup. There's no feeling like it. You definitely feel there's a lot of pride.
"There's pressure, but most guys here have felt that before in the World Cup or Stanley Cup finals and they're prepared for it."
Wilson was asked if he was concerned that several of his players were seen out and about at 3:30 Sunday morning.
"No," he said, but it was easy to see he didn't mean it.