Olympics: Anybody left who can beat Canada?
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- All it took was one whirlwind stretch Wednesday, and the entire Olympic hockey tournament was flipped right back to where it started: Canada is the heavy gold-medal favorite.
Down went Russia, pummeled by the suddenly rejuvenated Canadians.
Down went Sweden, the 2006 champion, outhustled by the upstart Slovaks.
Just like that, the best offensive and best defensive teams, respectively, were out of Canada's path, the only two that could challenge or exceed Canada in either facet. And all that is left of the field will play out on the dual semifinal stage today at Canada Hockey Place: United States vs. Finland at 3 p.m., Canada vs. Slovakia at 9:30 p.m.
Is it a done deal?
Not so long as three other teams still can dream of that gold.
"I don't care what team you're from, if you say you're not thinking about it, you're lying," U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik of the Penguins said. "It's only natural. But going back to playing for the Stanley Cup the past couple years, you always picture yourself having success, trying to dream of those moments. At the same time, you don't overlook anybody."
The U.S. is the only undefeated team left and the only one that has beaten -- or faced -- Canada, having stolen a 5-3 result last Sunday on the strength of goaltender Ryan Miller's 42 saves.
The Americans had not played their best to that point, including that game, but they upgraded their attack and defensive cohesion markedly in the 2-0 quarterfinal shutout of Switzerland, a game they dominated much more than the score indicates. Maybe just as important, they finally got the A-grade versions of Zach Parise and Patrick Kane, two of their most dynamic forwards, with Parise scoring both goals.
"We got a lot of things moving in the right direction," Miller said. "And we can all do even better."
Facing the passive Swiss might have helped prepare the Americans for Finland, who are not as defensive but are no less disciplined. As Orpik described the Finns after the U.S. players spent part of Thursday afternoon watching video, "They're kind of like the Swiss but with more talent."
And, just as Switzerland had Jonas Hiller towering in goal, the Finns have benefited from Miikka Kiprusoff's strong performance with a sterling .947 save percentage.
"We just saw that," left winger Ryan Malone said shortly after the U.S. players watched video of Finland Thursday afternoon: "And they pack it in around him. We're going to have to get in his house, get some traffic and deflections going."
This semifinal will match the tournament's youngest and oldest teams, the Finns having an average age of 30.3 and still, after all these years, leaning heavily on Teemu Selanne, 38, for offense. But Finland's experience is key to its methodical power play that might be the most dangerous at these Games: Seven of 12 goals have come with the man-advantage.
Another highly visible trait has been the Finns' passion, something they also showed in 2006 when taking a surprising silver. They are 3-1 here, with the only loss coming to rival Sweden, and they likely will not be content with merely getting this far, even if Selanne on Thursday said: "It's not going to be easy. We want to play our best game and, whatever happens, we can live with that."
When it comes to passion, no one here will match Slovakia, also 3-1. As Swedish center Peter Forsberg said of the Slovaks, "We had to chase them the whole game."
But that should not suggest that the Slovaks are getting by on pride. Not with the elite likes of Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, one of the NHL's best defensemen in Zdeno Chara and, finally, after years of searching for a national goaltender, a steady NHL presence in Jaroslav Halak.
More than three-quarters of the roster currently plays or once played in the NHL, and that was evident in the Slovaks'not-remotely-fluky 3-2 shootout victory against Russia last week.
At the same time, they will have nowhere near the pressure of the host team.
"It's the biggest achievement so far in the short history of Slovak Republic," former Penguins forward Miroslav Satan said. "Canada is probably the best team in this tournament. We're going to be the underdog, so we have nothing to lose. It will take a miracle, but miracles do happen."
That leaves Canada.
Make no mistake: No matter how much the Canadians tried to build up Slovakia after practice Thursday -- and they surely did try -- a loss at this point, to any of the remaining teams, would be an upset. Not an enormous upset, but an upset.
Especially given how Canada righted itself with the 7-3 rout of Russia, a show of force between two hockey powers that might be the strongest seen in the Olympics since the NHL began participating in 1998.
"We want to come out the same way," center Sidney Crosby said. "We went right at Russia, and that's the way we need to play against Slovakia at the start, to use our speed and size."
Still, the Canadians have hurdles to overcome.
One is that the same roster that humiliated an opponent with Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin on its top line also has struggled for long stretches against defense-first types such as Switzerland and Norway. The Russians, in fact, were their first opponent not to make such an approach the top priority.
Slovakia showed late in its game against Sweden that it could fend off a hard attack, and it limited the Russians to just those two goals. And, whichever of the U.S. or Finland might be Canada's opponent for gold, that team will bring experienced defense and some of the tournament's best goaltending.
"They're a team that will wait for their chances, wait for their power plays," Crosby said of Slovakia. "And they've got guys who don't need a lot of room or time to make you pay. We're well aware of that."
Moreover, the Canadians will have had to play five games in seven days to win gold, that thanks to that qualification-round game Tuesday against Germany. Neither the U.S. nor Finland did.
Could fatigue stop them?
First Published February 26, 2010 12:00 am