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Duhatschek: Rivalry rematch for Canada and U.S. with chance at gold on the line

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There is now an obvious and palpable disconnect between Canada's men's Olympic hockey team and the public at large. The public at large is in full panic mode, despite four consecutive wins, because each one has come with a hiccup or two along the way, which tends to happen in Olympic hockey tournaments (see Russia for details).

Latvia provided the latest, stiffest test for Canada on Wednesday. A team seeded 11th after the preliminary round, which had played every opponent tough, did the same against Canada. A goaltender with a difficult-to-pronounce name, Kristers Gudlevskis, who'd spent part of the season playing in the lowest level of the minors, the ECHL, with the Florida Everblades, stopped 55 of the 57 Canadian shots in what finished as a nail-biting 2-1 win for the Canadians.

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That Latvia had gotten the game to a point in the third period where any kind of bad break could have knocked Canada out of the tournament was a measure of how grim things could have turned out. Canada poured on the pressure from the start, but the Latvian players bravely blocked shots and otherwise protected the net in front of Mr. Gudlevskis to a point where they were thinking thoughts of a miracle in Riga.

Canada ultimately prevailed, breaking the tie on a third-period power-play goal by Shea Weber, using his lethal slap shot to fine effect again. But it was good theatre while it lasted. Latvia is coached by one of Canada's most famous and well-liked coaches, Ted Nolan, and boasts a couple of fringe NHL players and not much more. It was classic David vs. Goliath, with Goliath eventually winning the day.

But it isn't happening without a battle. Altogether 10 of the 14 Canadian forwards have not scored a goal in the first four games, including team captain Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer. Mr. Crosby's production was up and down in Vancouver too, but he delivered when it mattered most, in the gold-medal game against the Americans, who happen to be up next in the semi-final in Sochi. The prospect of facing a North American opponent playing an NHL style is actually pleasing to the Canadians, after being frustrated by the suffocating, European trap-style defences thus far.

But Mr. Crosby is a level-headed sort, not known for getting too high or too low, and pointed out the obvious.

"We had some great chances," he said, "and when you're getting chances like that, there's not a lot you would change. I think it's just the ultimate test of your patience when you're getting chances like that. You need to find a way to score."

Canada's next opponent, the United States, seemingly has found a way to consistently score, including a solid 5-2 victory over the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals. Does Canada stand a chance if they continue to get the same sort of minimal production up front?

"Honestly, if we're talking about that, I don't know what we'd go back and change," is how Mr. Crosby answered. "You look at tonight, and besides picking the puck up and throwing it in the net, what could you tell someone to do in those situations? I think you just trust in what you do."

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Centre Jonathan Toews was far less patient with a similar line of questioning. A fairly innocuous question – does the team need to play better to defeat the U.S.? – provoked the following response from Mr. Toews:

"You tell me – how do you think we played? I think we did a lot of great things out there. I'd say we are improving and getting better and better each game. You wouldn't be asking that question if we filled the net tonight. But give them credit. That was a hard-working team that played really well around their goaltender. I think we can respect that and stay confident that we can score goals.

"Look across our lineup. There's a lot of talent out there. I don't think anyone's squeezing the stick or worrying or panicking too much."

There will be many familiar faces on the other side when the Canadians and Americans meet. Mr. Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith will be facing off against Patrick Kane, their long-time Chicago Blackhawks teammate. Mr. Crosby's coach in Pittsburgh, Dan Bylsma, coaches the Americans. Two of Canada's most productive scorers, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty, will face their Los Angeles Kings teammate, goaltender Jonathan Quick. The St. Louis Blues' David Backes will be trying to score goals against Canada's defensive duo of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, his Blues teammates.

The NHL connections run deeply through the respective lineups, which will add an undercurrent of intrigue to a much-anticipated rematch of the 2010 gold-medal game. With Russia out – losing in an upset to Finland – the U.S. looms as Canada's next biggest rival.

"It's what it's all about, Canada-USA," Mr. Toews said. "It's become even a bigger rivalry than Canada-Russia. There's a lot of animosity, a lot of feelings like there's something to prove between both teams." And, he added: "It's for the chance to go and play for a gold medal. It doesn't get any better than that."

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The one sentiment that pretty much everybody can agree upon.

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