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Team USA not sharp in tuneup for epic showdown with Canada

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Obviously they didn't tell the whole story of Canada at the Opening Ceremonies of the XXI Olympic Winter Games. A casual viewer of the pomp a week ago might have assumed these few acres of snow, as Voltaire once described New France, were populated only by dance-crazed native peoples and enthusiastic fiddlers. Clearly VANOC slighted the huge proportion of the Canadian population that is of Scandinavian extraction.

Surely demographics were the reason Canada Hockey Place reverberated Thursday with chants of "Let's Go Norway" -- unless you reject the theory that Vancouver is the westernmost suburb of Minneapolis and agree with American goalie Ryan Miller. Of the pro-Norway hubbub, he deadpanned afterward, "I think there were some Canadians [in the crowd]."

The fervent good wishes of the paying hockey mob could not inspire the (temporarily) beloved Norwegians, who fell 6-1 (RECAP) to Team USA. It was a 60-minute warm-up in disdain that barely hints at the opprobrium the Americans will face when they play Canada on Sunday. The only thing a Canadian hates more than being mistaken for an American is losing a hockey game to one.

Team USA coach Ron Wilson figures the atmosphere will be the most riveting of any game he has coached since the last match of the best-of-three final in the 1996 World Cup in Montreal -- although that marvelous 5-2 U.S. victory over Canada was a tree falling in the forest compared to what will transpire on Hockey Day in Heaven.

(The three games on Sunday that conclude the round robin, all involving the best six national teams in the world, are rematches of the past three Olympic finals. In addition to U.S.-Canada [2002], Finland meets Sweden [2006] -- not to paint this with too broad a brush, but Swedes think the Finns tipple and the Finns think Swedes wear high heels -- and Russia plays the Czech Republic [1998]. You've got two border feuds and one that faintly echoes the unpleasantry with Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968.) Certainly the Americans must tighten their game if they are to slug the host nation straight in its outsized hockey ego. For about half of the Norway game -- the second period and the first 10 minutes of the third -- Team USA was playing it even against basically 22 guys named Lars-Erik. The speed, the feral forechecking and the finish of the first period turned to sloth and selfishness.

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"We were putting a little whipped cream on some of the plays we were making," Wilson said, "and it doesn't always work."

As in the opening win over Switzerland, there were at least a half dozen odd-man rushes, including one that led to the Norwegians' short-handed goal, when three Americans were trapped in the offensive zone. Not until the final 5:41 did Team USA shake its lethargy, scoring three goals in an awakening that appeared to be sparked by a line change.

Wilson flopped right wingers, moving captain Jamie Langenbrunner to the top line with Paul Stastny and Zach Parise and dropping the electric Patrick Kane down to play with two-way center Ryan Kesler. The move, in hindsight, seems obvious. Parise and Langenbrunner often play together on a line in New Jersey. Voilà, chemistry. Said Parise, "I know what he's going to bring to the table every time. We played well together, even in the short chance we had tonight. I almost expected coming into the tournament that we would play together."

The move made sense on another level, at least as a Kaplan Prep course for the Canada game. A Statsny-Parise-Kane line is all-world nifty but barely big enough to get on the rides at Disneyworld. Langenbrunner will add an element of heft if he rides shotgun against a Canadian team that has a bunch of forwards big enough to block out the sun.

"Patrick's a winger, but he's really a center playing the wing," Wilson said of his late line juggling. "Paul Stastny needs to touch the puck a little bit more. Also Zach. [I was] changing the lines up to look for a little more compatibility. It wasn't Patrick Kane's fault. He's playing Patrick Kane hockey."

But Wilson will not have the final word in advance of the showdown. This goes to Pal Grotnes, the Norwegian goalie who has faced both powers this week. He is a full-time carpenter when not in an Olympic year, but a part-time prognosticator. When asked by whom he fancies in the USA-Canada showdown, he said, "The U.S. is a little bit faster in the skating and more aggressive on the forecheck. The Canadians are more physical but not that fast. I think Canada wins. They got that whole team there. Crosby, Iginla, the good San Jose line. USA is good, but they don't have the depth of players."