Canada knows it can't overlook Slovakia
Revenge has been on their minds for the last four years, ever since their Boys of Winter came home from Turin, Italy, empty-handed and embarrassed.
It's come down to one weekend of hockey, to a battle against Slovakia for the chance -- birthright if you ask some fans around here -- to play for the most important gold medal of these Olympics on their own ice here in British Columbia.
Yes, Canada, your hockey team can taste it, too.
"You hate to say that's what the Olympics are all about, but this is the one they really want and this is the one we want to give them," Canada defenseman Dan Boyle told NHL.com Thursday. "But again, we have a huge match (Friday). We can't jump ahead. We have to focus on tomorrow or else we'll end up like Sweden, behind in the third, and we don't want to do that."
Canada controls its destiny now, its dreams and the hope of a prideful nation. The puck is in Canada’s court, and now it's up to the players to figure out how to make it bounce the right way.
The Canada players can't imagine having to wake up and play a consolation game for a bronze medal Saturday. Nobody here can. That was never part of the plan.
"I know technically it's not like a Game 7 because you don't win anything if you win it, but that's the way I look at it," Boyle said. "You can't play for the gold unless you win this do-or-die game."
The Canada players insist they are not overlooking Slovakia, the upstart team in the tournament that no one -- perhaps not even the Slovakians -- figured still would be alive at this stage.
Slovakia is not a hockey superpower like Canada, but it took a similar path to the semifinals.
Slovakia finished the preliminary round with a regulation win against Latvia after a shootout defeat of Russia and a regulation loss to the Czech Republic. Canada beat Norway in regulation and Switzerland in a shootout, then lost to the U.S. in regulation.
Canada and Slovakia each won their first elimination games Tuesday, though Canada had an easy time dispatching Germany while Slovakia struggled to beat Norway. They each won in stunning fashion Wednesday: Canada steamrolled Russia 7-3 in a game that was supposed to be close; Slovakia shocked Sweden 4-3 in a game it was supposed to lose.
"We went right after it," Canada's Sidney Crosby told NHL.com. "We didn't come out and wait to see what it was going to be. We went right after it and I think that's a good lesson we can take on to the next game. When games are big like that you don't want to waste the first 10 minutes trying to figure it out. You want to just go after it. That was a positive thing."
There is one very obvious difference at play here, though. To get the full scope of the pressure each team is facing, all you have to do is listen to the architects.
Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman told NHL.com on Thursday that he had moved past the Russia win and was focusing strictly on Slovakia. His celebration stopped as soon as he went to bed Wednesday night (or early Thursday morning).
Slovakia GM Peter Bondra told the Olympic news service his team still was reveling in its victory, which is why they cancelled practice and did not make any players available to speak to the media.
"We are still living what we accomplished last night," Bondra said.
Needless to say, the Canada players were following Yzerman's approach.
"Getting to be a part of the chapter of the Russia-Canada history is definitely an honor, but now it's down to four teams, two games, and if you put two together you can win a gold medal," Jarome Iginla told NHL.com. "Our focus is on Slovakia. We know they are very hungry, too."
And scary, as well.
Canada has followed Slovakia throughout the tournament, especially after they beat Russia.
"They're playing together as a team," Crosby said. "To beat a team like Sweden you have to be pretty committed to playing a team game and that's what they did."
This is not eight years ago, when Belarus, a team with one NHL player (Ruslan Salei), stunned Sweden to set up a semifinal match against Canada in Salt Lake City.
Slovakia has 13 NHL players, some of the biggest money players in the League, including Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky. Jaroslav Halak is winning the goaltending job in Montreal with his play in the Olympics. Michal Handzus and Miroslav Satan have put together long NHL careers.
Even the Slovak players who aren't in the NHL now have a history playing here. Zigmund Palffy played in four All-Star Games and was better than a point-per-game player during his NHL career. Richard Zednik and Branko Radivojevic played a long time in the NHL, too.
"The Slovakians already beat good teams in this tournament," Iginla told NHL.com. "They play everybody hard and we know they have some dangerous guys. Halak is playing well. Them beating Sweden was not as big an upset as Belarus over Sweden."
But Slovakia taking down Canada would be bigger than what Belarus did to heavily favored Sweden eight years ago.
Six and a half years of hype and four years of revenge suggest that just can't happen. From a Canadian perspective, it better not.
"We're not trying to taste anything too far ahead of our schedule, but we have a good feeling in our room right now as we did right at the beginning of the tournament," forward Eric Staal said. "Not everybody believed us, but we always had confidence in our room.
"We are thinking about the Slovaks. They are the one team that's in our way from where we want to be."