VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The Americans own one stirring win over Canada. It will take two to capture hockey gold.
Their semifinal victory Friday over Finland went smoother than anyone could have imagined. The surprising U.S. squad tormented goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Niklas Backstrom by scoring six times in the first period. The Americans never looked back in a 6-1 rout.
That bought them a much-anticipated rematch with the potent Canadians, on a roll since the preliminary round loss to the U.S. that prompted a goalie switch from Martin Brodeur to Roberto Luongo.
The crowd filled Canada Hockey Place with chants of “Luuuuuuu” even though Luongo was hardly tested until the third period of Canada’s 3-2 victory over Slovakia on Friday night. Patrick Marleau and Brenden Morrow scored on tipped shots in the first period and the partisan fans decked out in Maple Leaf jerseys celebrated the country’s chance at revenge.
“They’ve got a great team over there,” defenseman Shea Weber said of the top-seeded Americans. “They’ve proven that already by finishing first, and they’re obviously in the gold medal game for a reason.”
Canada against the United States one more time. Everything on the line.
The same scenario played out eight years ago when Canada spoiled the hosts’ Salt Lake City party with a 5-2 win. The Americans would love to return the favor and disappoint Canada at home in its most popular sport.
“It’s hard to beat a team twice in a tournament like this,” U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. “We’ve beaten Canada, and we’ll play better than we did the last time.”
They will have to. The United States is 5-0. However, one blemish means silver instead of gold.
It will be the first time since 1972 the U.S. men will play for gold on foreign soil. It’s their second shot at gold in the past three Olympics, but they haven’t claimed the top spot on the podium since the 1980 Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid, N.Y.
“We believed we could win a gold medal. Now we have the opportunity,” captain Jamie Langenbrunner said.
The United States built a roster of young, fast players instead of relying on aging stalwarts such as Mike Modano and Bill Guerin for this tournament. General manager Brian Burke repeatedly said before the Olympics that no one would bet on his club to win, yet he never yielded in his belief that the team’s goal was the same as always — gold.
A sea of Canada red and white awaits the kids from America Sunday. The arena was decidedly against them in the first meeting, and the rematch promises to be more intense.
“You may find this hard to believe. It doesn’t matter to me who we’re playing,” Canada coach Mike Babcock said. “But the U.S.-Canada thing is a reality, and I think you’re going to see a lot of this in the future.”
Fans on both sides of the border have been anticipating the matchup, and during the U.S. victory, the crowd called out for Canada.
Hours later they got their wish.
Less than 7 minutes into the third period of Canada’s victory, calls for “We Want U.S.A” echoed through the capacity crowd above the din of ringing cow bells and drum pounding. A nervous pall fell over the fans as Slovakia closed within a goal, but the cheers returned when Luongo stopped Vancouver Canucks teammate Pavol Demitra on a final scoring chance in the closing seconds.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Demitra said. “Louie saved the game for those guys.”
Goaltending was the story in the early in the U.S.-Finland game, too, but for different reasons.
Barely two minutes into the game, Kiprusoff was staring at the ceiling in disbelief.
Ryan Malone raced into Finland’s zone, picked off Kiprusoff’s ill-advised pass and scored into an empty net. The Americans scored four times on Kiprusoff in a six-goal first period en route to an easy win.
“It was a crazy 12 minutes,” said forward Patrick Kane, who scored twice. “I’ve never been a part of something like that. It seemed like we were scoring every shift.”
It felt even longer to the Finns.
“The game is over after six minutes,” 39-year-old Finland forward Teemu Selanne said.
“It was a long day and very disappointing.”
By the time Kiprusoff left the game 10:08 in, the U.S. had a 4-0 lead on only seven shots. The Calgary Flames goalie had allowed four goals total on 75 shots in three previous games, giving him the top save percentage in the tournament.
“No one is ever as good as they look. And no one is ever as bad as they look, either,” Langenbrunner said.
Kiprusoff’s day appeared to be over after Eric Johnson made it 3-0 with a power-play goal at 8:36. That prompted Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen to call timeout. Kiprusoff got a reprieve, but was back at the bench 1:32 later when Kane scored his first.
Kiprusoff kept his mask on and marched straight down the tunnel toward the dressing room. Backup goalie Niklas Backstrom pulled off his baseball cap and took Kiprusoff’s place in the net.
Things didn’t go any better for him. Backstrom got beat twice on the first four shots he faced.
“We didn’t expect that in a million years,” U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson said. “I don’t think anyone did, especially when you get down to the final four, but it happened for us and we’re looking forward to Sunday.”
Finland, silver medalists four years ago in the Turin Games, will have to settle for a shot at the bronze against Slovakia on Saturday night. This proud group of aging stars, including Selanne and captain Saku Koivu, won bronze in 1998 when the NHL first started sending players to the Olympics.
The Americans were eliminated by Finland in the 2006 Olympic quarterfinals, but the Finns were the final opponent for the 1980 U.S. team that shocked hockey.
Another gold has been 30 years — at least — in the making.
“We haven’t won anything yet,” U.S. forward Zach Parise said. “We’re getting better and that would be the most important and rewarding thing.”