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So everybody finally got the game they wanted, in all of its open-ice glory - Canada and the United States, in the men's Olympic hockey semi-finals, and it lived up to all the hope and the hype. The pace was supercharged, the skill on display breathtaking. More than anything, it was a fearless brand of hockey, two teams confident in their respective abilities, and willing to test the limits of their opponents.
There weren't a lot of goals, but scoring chances abounded. The respective goaltenders, Jonathan Quick for the United States and Carey Price for Canada, were in the zone.
Aesthetically, it surpassed the U.S.-Russia game earlier in the tournament and probably ranked right up there with the gold medal game, played between the same two teams four years ago in Vancouver.
In short, it was hockey, played the right way, and the only downside was, somebody had to lose and go home.
Canada moves on thanks to a 1-0 victory and will play Sweden in Sunday's gold-medal final. Canada is the defending champion, but it has been 62 years since they won a gold medal in a European Olympics.
"I think a lot of people expected us to be there, and expected us to just show up in the final and have a chance to play for the gold medal, but we knew it was going to be a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of adversity to get there," said centre Jonathan Toews.
"A lot of people want to talk about the things that aren't so strong about our team, but we knew all along we were doing a lot of great things, and we are going to continue doing that. As you saw tonight, we didn't score a lot of goals, but we didn't have to, to win. The next game will follow that work ethic. We can check, we can work our tails off and we can make things real tough for the other team."
With the loss, their first of the tournament, after opening with four wins, the U.S. drops down in Saturday's bronze-medal game against Finland.
In the end, it came down to one creative play engineered by two players nominally in the bottom part of the roster. Jamie Benn's goal 1:41 into the second period staked Canada to a 1-0 lead and from there, it was Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester who made the play possible. Seeing Benn drive to the net from the right wing, his off side, Bouwmeester deliberately fired a shot to an area rather than the net and Benn deftly tipped it home for his second goal of the tournament.
"Their goalie, you're not going to beat him with a lot of clean shots," said Bouwmeester. "It's lucky Benny got a stick on it."
Benn was playing on a line with a pair of Anaheim Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and they were a solid, in sync unit for the Canadians. But really, every one of the Canadian lines played well.
Down a goal, the U.S. pressed to get the tying goal in the third, but ultimately, it was the Canadian team's defensive commitment that won the day again. Canada had surrendered just three goals in the first four games, and was getting monstrously effective performances from the likes of Shea Weber and Drew Doughty.
Unlike the past games, coach Mike Babcock stopped juggling his lines and just went with four balanced units, rolling them out one after the other, nobody really playing any more or any less than anyone else. To play at such a supercharged pace, Babcock kept the shifts incredibly short – about 35 seconds on average and then they'd change. Two players, Martin St. Louis and Dan Hamhuis, dressed but didn't play at all – at least not for the first 40 minutes.
It was so vastly different from the games Canada played earlier in the tournament against the likes of Norway, Austria and Latvia, which mostly involved teams falling back the whole game, trying to clog the middle and keep the speed out of the game.
"There was a lot of back and forth – a little different from our first couple of games of the tournament as far as the European style of play," said Canadian forward Patrick Sharp. "That one felt a little more comfortable, like we were back home, just on a bigger sheet of ice. Obviously, the familiarity between all the players helps.
"Every shift is a challenge out there against a team like the U.S. They have some game breakers. I've seen that little No. 88 (Chicago Blackhawks' teammate Patrick Kane) score some big goals in the past. I figured he'd have something up his sleeve against us tonight, but we were able to shut him down."
Kane managed just three shots in the game and finished the tournament with four assists, but no goals.
"No one said it was going to be easy," said Kane. "I think everyone expected a tight checking game but to say we would have gotten shut out, I don't think anyone would have thought that.
It begs the question at some point if the Olympic format needs to be tweaked so the high-end teams get to play each other more frequently. It seemed like a long time to wait – five games in – before a game of this magnitude could be played.
As for Price, he made 31 saves in the shutout win, but largely gave credit to Canada's overall defensive effort, which was relentless.
"That defensive group in front of me played very well," said Price. "They're very good at boxing guys out and let me have my eyes. Our forwards back-checked really hard tonight and I think that was the difference.
"If we were to think about that result and visualize it at the start of the day, we'd say, 'mission accomplished.' " One of the youngest players in the tournament was the American defenceman Cam Fowler, an NHL teammate of Getzlaf's and Perry's in Anaheim. Fowler was able to do something that's difficult, separate himself from the moment of the loss to reflect on the game as a whole.
"It was a great, great game by both teams I think," said Fowler. "They had their fair of chances. Quickie stood on his head for us, made some big saves and I thought we had some good scoring opportunities too unfortunately we couldn't get one to go. It's a one-goal game.
"Those are two great hockey teams playing, the best players in the world. I didn't think it was a lack of effort. I'm proud of the way that we battled and credit to them for the way that they played tonight."
Canada found inspiration in the performance of the women's team, which won a gold medal over the United States the night before, with a thrilling overtime, come-from-behind performance. Three players, Hayley Wickenheiser, Brianne Jenner and Shannon Szabados, came by the men's team morning skate and dropped off a note for the players posted in the dressing room.
It read: "Tonight is yours. Own the moment. We are proof that every minute matters. The podium is reserved for the brave. Earn every inch, dictate the pace. Go get em! From the Girls!"
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