TORONTO — Although hockey's global melting pot has erased most of the differences between North American and European players, Canadian players still claim one quality as uniquely their own.
They call it grit, a deep well of resolve that fuels their belief hockey is still their game. And it was that kind of determination, not dazzling plays, that lifted them to a 4-3 overtime victory over a superior Czech Republic team on Saturday and into Tuesday's World Cup of Hockey championship game.
"We escaped," Coach Pat Quinn said, his drawn face reflecting the strain of a nerve-jangling game.
The decisive goal by Vincent Lecavalier that rocked the Air Canada Centre 3 minutes 45 seconds into sudden-death play didn't spring from years of practicing on frozen ponds. It was a sterling example of simply refusing to surrender what had taken so much sweat to earn.
Lecavalier missed his first shot at goalie Tomas Vokoun, an easy mistake in the frantic atmosphere created by 19,273 roaring people.
"It kind of just went between my legs," Lecavalier said.
When the puck came back to him and no defender followed, he shot quickly.
"I knew I had to go high," he said. "But with the angle I had, you know, I got pretty lucky."
Because he did, Canada got to the final against Finland, which eliminated the U.S. on Friday at St. Paul, Minn.
"We showed a lot of character to come back every time," former Mighty Duck winger Vaclav Prospal said. "We were the better team all night but we didn't win, so nobody is going to remember that."
Canada scored on an offensive foray by defenseman Eric Brewer at 11:15 of the second period and a power-play shot from the left circle by Mario Lemieux at 14:25. The Czechs pulled within a goal at 15:07, when Petr Cajanek slid the puck through the pads of Roberto Luongo, who started when Martin Brodeur withdrew because of a sprained left wrist.
Martin Havlat scored on a rebound at 7:21 of the third period to tie the score, 2-2, but Canada surged ahead on a goal by Kris Draper from the top of the left circle at 13:47. Six seconds later, Patrik Elias brought the Czechs even with a shot from the slot.
Luongo, who looked shaky in the early stages, was superb in overtime. Among his five saves were a point-blank stop on Havlat and one on Milan Hejduk from the right circle.
He kept the Canadians in the tournament, giving them a chance to add a World Cup title to the Olympic gold medal they won at Salt Lake City in 2002. "This," said Draper, "is as good as it gets."