VANCOUVER // Jittery Canadians stepped back from the panic button on Wednesday as the country's dream of men's ice hockey Olympic gold received a jolt of confidence with a ruthless 7-3 win over Russia. Safely through to Friday's semi-finals, Canada's gold medal mission has come into sharper focus with only the tournament surprise package ninth-ranked Slovakia standing between the hockey crazed nation and a place in the February 28 final.
After Canada had shown the top-ranked Russians the exit, Slovakia took to the ice and delivered the shock of the Olympic tournament knocking off reigning champions Sweden 4-3 in a quarter-final thriller. "They (Canada) play at home and they are really going to come out hard," Slovakian forward Marian Gaborik said. "The most important thing is going to be the first 20 minutes of the game because they are going to come out hard and everyone knows that.
"Right now they are the best team out there. Again we're underdogs." The other semi-final will see the United States face off against Finland after both countries survived close quarter-final shaves. Niklas Hagman scored with less than six minutes to play to help the Finns to a 2-0 win over 1998 Olympic champions Czech Republic while the United States needed a pair of third period goals from Zach Parise to see off feisty Switzerland by the same 2-0 score line.
While Canada's road to the gold as been treacherous and full of stomach-churning turns, the Swedes had been on cruise control until they ran into the Slovakian giant-killers, who had signalled their medal ambition with an upset win over Russia in the preliminary round. The quarter-final results show how quickly fortune and momentum can swing in a compact Olympic tournament. A few days ago Canadian confidence was shaken by a surprise loss to the United States that plunged the Great White North into a fit of fretting.
Their backs pressed to the wall and facing elimination for the second straight day, Canada responded the same way they did 24 hours earlier in a qualification game against Germany with a ruthless all out attacking display. While Canada's 8-2 thrashing of the Germans was expected the mugging delivered to the world champions was not. Now Team Canada will wake up on Thursday to find that Slovakia has removed a major roadblock from their path to the gold medal that means more than any other to the hosts.
"There's no guarantees," cautioned Team Canada coach Mike Babcock after the win over Russia and his semi-final opponent still unknown. "You've seen in all these games and it's a fine line. "All we've done now is set ourselves up with a chance. We like our team, we like our opportunity. "There's pressure on us because we think we have a chance. "To me that's a really good thing." * Reuters