Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — The loser of today's preliminary-round hockey finale between the U.S. and Canada won't be eliminated from the Olympic hockey tournament. The winner won't get a gold medal.
But the game will raise the intensity another notch, setting up next week's playoffs and championship game
"This is the pinnacle of sports. This is two teams playing for that bye, that first-round pass," Ducks and U.S. forward Bobby Ryan said. "I think it's a big thing for us. It's probably the biggest game of my life so far, so I'm looking forward to it."
But Canada Coach Mike Babcock put the brakes on any suggestions this game is as important as a gold-medal game.
"Let's not get carried away," he said Saturday. "It's as big a game as we've played thus far in the tournament."
The goal of both teams is to play in bigger games during the week. Although national pride will be at stake, an optimal seeding is the main prize today.
"As the Americans are getting better over the years the gap is closing. I think we're pretty even," Canada and San Jose Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said. "You see more and more Americans in the NHL every day and they're very capable of winning this whole thing, as much as we are."
After today's games the 12 teams in the tournament will be ranked 1-12 based on the points they've accrued. The top four will each get a bye into the quarterfinals and the other eight will participate in play-in games Tuesday.
There are many possible playoff permutations depending on the outcome of today's three games. The lead-in to the U.S.-Canada Group A game will match Russia and the Czech Republic, and the final game will match Sweden and Finland. The seedings and playoff pairings probably won't be clear until the buzzer sounds on that final game.
The U.S. has six points after regulation wins over Switzerland and Norway. Canada has five after routing Norway but needing a shootout to beat Switzerland. A loss by Canada today would send it to that play-in round.
"The path to where we both want to go is a lot easier if we win," Babcock said.
Both coaches tinkered with their line combinations and juggled defense pairs during their practices Saturday.
Wilson had Ryan Kesler centering for Ryan and Patrick Kane; Zach Parise with Paul Stastny and Jamie Langenbrunner; Ryan Malone and Phil Kessel on the wings with Joe Pavelski, and Dustin Brown with David Backes and Chris Drury.
"We're just trying to shake things up a little bit and see if we can take advantage of Patrick's creativity because he needs to have the puck a lot," Wilson said. "Bobby Ryan's done a great job this year finding holes with the guys he plays with and I'm hoping early in the game they can find some chemistry."
Ryan was delighted to play with Chicago's Kane and Vancouver's Kesler.
"Everybody would tell you they'd like to play with Kaner because you get open for a half a second and he's going to find you," Ryan said, "and Kesler and I kind of play the same style in the fact that we like to grind and we like to hold on to the puck down low and work from the corner. I think it could be a dynamic thing for us."
He described Kesler as "a pain. He really is. He's a pest. He's Corey Perry, for the lack of a better term. He's gonna get in your face. He's going to let you know he's there all night long. He's going to finish checks. It'll be nice to be on this end of it."
Langenbrunner, the New Jersey Devils winger and U.S. captain, said the new configuration should spread out the team's grit.
"I think it's also to give us a different dynamic on each line," he said. "Sometimes if you have too many of the same players you're kind of doing each other's jobs and you get lost out there. With guys to open up a space for guys and the rest of them to do their thing, that might help skill players out."
Babcock kept intact his potent first line of San Jose's Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley but put Mike Richards with Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash; Jarome Iginla with Brenden Morrow and Jonathan Toews on a line he expects to be physical, and Ryan Getzlaf between Perry and Eric Staal.
On defense, he said he will pair second-year Kings defenseman Drew Doughty with Chicago's Duncan Keith and move Keith's usual partner, Brent Seabrook, into a limited role.
"Doughty and Keith really picked their games up the last game," Babcock said. "The guys who can really skate have been the best at the back."
Canada defenseman Chris Pronger said his team has felt some of the intense pressure imposed by fans and media.
"At times you can, but I don't think you can let that eat you up. At the end of the day we've got to go out and enjoy the day and have fun and enjoy the Olympic experience," he said. "That alone, hopefully, is going to allow you to rise to the occasion and play your best hockey.
"You start worrying about expectation and worrying about fan pressure, media pressure, country pressure, all those things, it can eat you up and weigh you down. We've just got to let things fly and play to the best of our abilities and play with passion and pride and let everything else handle itself."