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From journeymen to Olympic medal hopefuls, Team Canada savours win over Finland

Canada defenceman Maxim Noreau celebrates his goal against Finland with teammates Christian Thomas and Chay Genoway during an Olympic hockey quarter-final in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Chris Kelly has a Stanley Cup, but the thought of playing for an Olympic medal made him pause for a moment and smile.

"That sounds nice," the Canadian forward said, acknowledging that the words had a nice ring to them.

Canada had just stepped off the ice with a 1-0 victory over Finland in the Olympic quarterfinals on Wednesday – a win that sends them into a semi-final matchup against Germany on Friday in Pyeongchang.

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"I never, ever thought this opportunity would come," said Kelly, who won a championship with the Boston Bruins in 2011 but is now in the twilight of his career at 37. "To be here, and to be in this situation with these guys, it's tough to put into words."

It's been a whirlwind past few months for Kelly and the other journeyman players plucked from hockey obscurity, playing in leagues all over the world, to form Team Canada's roster, after the National Hockey League chose not to play in these Olympics.

But until the third period of Canada's game against Finland, there was little for the Canadians to be smiling about. Facing their toughest test of the tournament so far, they struggled early trying to break through the Finish defence.

Despite having one of the tournament's better offences – including super-prospect Eeli Tolvanen, a Nashville Predators first-round pick who has impressed with his play-making ability – the Finns came out trapping, hoping to grind Canada down with a choke-hold defence. More than once, Canada's puck-carriers were met in the neutral zone by a wall of four Finnish defenders spread across the red line.

"They were kind of playing a trap on us," Canadian forward Eric O'Dell said. "But it just took one goal for us and we knew our defence would be great."

That goal finally came early in the third period when O'Dell won a draw cleanly back to defenceman Maxime Noreau, who one-timed a slap shot over the outstretched blocker of Finnish goaltender Mikko Koskinen.

"We had a set play there and fortunately I got it right on Maxy's stick and we know what kind of shot he has, and it was in the back of the net," O'Dell said.

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"I saw it from the bench," Kelly said of Noreau's shot. "It had eyes."

A period earlier, Canada was given a scare when starting goalie Ben Scrivens was forced to leave the game after taking a knee to the head while making a save. As Veli-Matti Savinainen cut toward the net, O'Dell hit the Finnish forward, sending him tumbling into Scrivens.

After laying on the ice for several seconds, Scrivens looked as though he could continue. But on the next play, a routine save on a snap shot from Joonas Kemppainen, the Canadian goalie left the ice and did not return.

Kevin Poulin, who played Canada's final game of the preliminary round, a 4-0 win against South Korea, came into the game and was forced to make several key saves, including one on a cross-ice pass to a wide-open Finnish forward.

"You've got to be ready mentally," Poulin said. "You track the puck and you play big, especially coming in cold."

The game was Canada's biggest test of the tournament so far. After beating a weak Swiss team 5-1 to open the tournament, losing to the Czech Republic 3-2 in a shootout, and shutting out South Korea in the preliminary round, the game against Finland was more intense, even if the stifling Finnish defence meant the pace was often halting.

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"We knew they played yesterday and they were kind of a little tired and we tried to get their defence moving as much as we could," O'Dell said.

Canada, which has struggled at times to score in Pyeongchang, started generating more offensive chances in the second period when forward Derek Roy said they finally broke through the trap by using their speed.

"I thought we made some adjustments after the first period," Roy said. "The first period we were thinking too much about the trap, instead of just going for it with the puck."

Roy attributed the win partly to a defensive stand Canada made late in the game as the Finns began to press.

"Guys were literally jumping in front of pucks with their face," Roy said. "So that's what we've got to do to win. We were diving everywhere, and yeah, they would have taken one in the teeth for sure."

Canada's path to the gold medal game now runs through Germany, after an upset of Sweden in overtime. Russia plays the Czech Republic in Friday's other semi-final.

Canadian coach Willie Desjardins said the German upset of Sweden wasn't necessarily a surprise to him. "Germany's playing well," he said. "They beat some good teams, so that means they're playing well."

Pondering his shot at an Olympic medal, Kelly said Canada can expect to see more defensive battles as the tournament progresses. Few teams at the tournament outside of Russia, with stars such as Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk, can boast an offence capable of playing wide-open hockey.

"It's not going to be high-scoring games moving forward," Kelly said. "I think for us to have success is to play good defensive hockey. And we know that, we embrace that. That's something we enjoy, playing in those tight games."

But Kelly said he wasn't the only one smiling on the Canadian side.

"The smiles on the faces after the game, after a hard-fought 1-0 win, you could tell how good we felt," Kelly said.

The head coach of Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team, which includes no current NHLers, says the players shared a 'dream' to compete for their country. Willie Desjardins was at the team announcement Wednesday in Calgary. The Canadian Press
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