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BILL PLASCHKE

They're going to duel it again

Of course: Canada and the United States will play for the gold medal in men's hockey.

February 27, 2010|Bill Plaschke

From Vancouver, Canada — Two Super Bowls in three weeks?

Thirty years in 60 minutes?

As it is written on the Canadian red T-shirts that currently hang from the backs of thousands of folks who will soon be forgetting their manners and clenching their teeth: "Believe."

On Sunday around noon here, the Olympics will end with a five-ring circus, a caldron of emotion, a ceremony of mettle, one flaming torch of a hockey game.

You sort of wanted it, the Canadians really wanted it, now maybe you're thinking twice about it, too late, it's here, Canada versus the United States for the Olympic gold medal.

"It's huge," said the Americans' Patrick Kane.

"The best of the best, like a Stanley Cup, maybe better," said American and Kings forward Dustin Brown.

It's a nation that considers hockey a birthright versus its giant next-door neighbor that steals birthrights.

It's quaint jerseys pulled from a tree (maple leaf) versus flashy ones pulled from the sky (stars).

It's fans who chant thoughts (Go, Canada, Go!) versus fans who shout initials (USA! USA!).

It's a way of life versus just another cool way to spend an afternoon, dude, the Canadians tight, the Americans acting like a 16th-seeded team on the verge of March Madness.

"Who do you think is going to win the gold medal?" American forward Ryan Kesler asked a group of reporters.

There was silence, and he smiled and said, "That's what I thought. There's no pressure on us because nobody thinks we're going to win. Nobody but us."

Plenty of that pressure was relieved last week when the U.S. beat Canada in a preliminary-round game, outshot but not outworked in a 5-3 victory. It was a game that turned up the heat on the Canadian team, the temperature now searing.

Canada lost then, it was a lousy day. Canada loses Sunday, it will be a bad four years.

"They're the home team, they will have incredible support, it's tough to beat a team twice," said USA Coach Ron Wilson. But, he added, "we've beaten them, we will play better than we did, and if we can survive those first five or six minutes . . ."

If Friday's semifinals are any indication, the first period could indeed decide the game, two hot teams coming out throwing haymakers and havoc.

In the early afternoon at Canada Hockey Place, the U.S. team, playing what some observers called the best 13 minutes of hockey in recent Olympic history, stunningly blew out Finland with six goals in the first period en route to a 6-1 victory.

"I've never been part of something like that in my career," said Teemu Selanne, the Finnish and Ducks star. "I was shocked. We had no chance."

On Friday evening, the Canadian team was also impressive early, leading 3-0 after two periods before hanging on for a 3-2 victory over Slovakia.

Said Canada's Sidney Crosby of Sunday's finale: "The first game was intense, and you can put it up a level . . . it's going to be an awesome atmosphere."

Said Canada's fans late in the game: "We want USA! We want USA!"

The gold-medal game was expected of Canada, whose roster is far more experienced and accomplished, and which leads all countries with 11 gold medals in men and women's ice hockey combined.

The Americans, meanwhile, have not won an Olympic gold since 1980, and that one has since been trademarked with the word "Miracle."

Though Canada defeated the U.S. in the Olympic gold-medal game in 2002 in Salt Lake City, this Sunday's game, by virtue of its location, is bigger. It will undoubtedly be the most-watched sports program in Canadian history, a nation transfixed as if cheering for its own children.

Funny, though, it could also end up being the most watched hockey game in U.S. history, Americans always up for a chance at tweaking tradition.

Given Friday's effort, the Americans could be up for it.

They scored four goals in their first seven shots against Miikka Kiprusoff, statistically the best goalie in this tournament. Kiprusoff had given up just four goals in the previous 75 shots he faced.

They began the scoring on an unassisted Ryan Malone shot after Kiprusoff was rushed into passing the puck to his stick. Frustrated Finland then took two silly interference and boarding penalties and the Americans scored after both, their passing perfect, their intensity unmatched. By the time the game was 10:08 old, the Americans led 4-0 and it was over.

Said Finland's Kimmo Timonen: "We knew they would come at us hard, but I was surprised at how hard. After every turnover it was a three-on-two, a two-on-one."

And now it s one-on-one, the final battle of these 2010 Winter Olympics to be waged for far more than a piece of metal or a spot on a podium, the Canadians defending their heritage against a nation that shadows it in many ways, but not this, never this.

After Friday's stunning U.S. win, Zach Parise shook his head and said, "I saw something today I've never seen before."

He hasn't seen anything yet.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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