Canada and the USA, the North American neighbours, will battle it out today for the gold medal in men's ice hockey, the home favourites against the surprise top seeds looking for their first Olympic title since 1980. Canada advanced on Friday with a 3-2 win over Slovakia in the semi-finals, while the Americans beat Finland 6-1 to clinch their spot in the final.
The USA had by far the easier passage, scoring all their goals in the first 13 minutes. The first four came on seven shots against Miikka Kiprusoff, whose sensational play earlier in the competition had put the Finns into medal contention. Kiprusoff was replaced by Niklas Backstrom, who allowed two goals on the next four shots. Patrick Kane scored twice for the Americans, while Ryan Malone, Zach Parise, Eric Johnson and Paul Stastny each had one goal.
Canada also seemed to be cruising when Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow and Ryan Getzlaf scored in the opening 24 minutes against Slovakia, but Lubomir Visnovsky and Michal Handzus netted less than four minutes apart in the third period to set up a tense finish. But the Canadians held on, setting up tonight's showdown with the USA on what is sure to be a memorable final day of the Winter Olympics. The game will be a rematch of the 2002 Salt Lake City gold medal game, won 5-2 by Canada. It is also a rematch of last Sunday's 5-3 win by the Americans in round-robin play, a result that nearly derailed Canada from a mission the country feels must be accomplished - winning the gold medal for the national sport on home soil.
"I can't wait," the Canada forward Jarome Iginla said. "We love the chance of playing them again. There's a lot of rivalries with them. It's going to be exciting, for the gold medal." There are plenty of questions to be answered. Can the Americans repeat their initial victory over Canada? Will the Canadians succumb to the pressure of playing a gold-medal game before their more-than- demanding home fans? Can America win an Olympic hockey gold outside the USA for the first time, and on the 50th anniversary of their surprise victory at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games? Can Canada's Sidney Crosby, a Stanley Cup winner in the NHL at age 21, add an Olympic gold just a year later? Can the USA win for the first time since pulling off the "Miracle on Ice" in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, when their motley collection of amateur and college players beat Russia - the best team in the world - on their way to gold?
Canada's 2002 win was huge, but for Canadians this game is bigger. A lot bigger. The way Canada are playing now - they have outscored Germany, Russia and Slovakia 18-7 since their loss to the US - means they will skate out as favourites at Vancouver's GM Place tonight However, it is the Americans who are unbeaten in Vancouver. * AP