By Austin Murphy
February 27, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The home crowd was content, and looking ahead. This one was in the bag. Canada was up 3-nil on a game-but-overmatched Slovakia club with another 14 minutes to play, but really, this one was over, right? If you were one of the many face-painted fans, it was time to get obnoxious, and maybe get some face-time on CTV. It was time to hope that Jarome Iginla would line up Slovakia's Zigmund Palffy and deliver some Iggy-on-Ziggy violence.

The lads had built their lead the old-fashioned way. They ventured into the tough neighborhoods: In the slot, in front of the net, and were rewarded. Patrick Marleau and Brenden Morrow scored unglamorous goals on tip-ins; Ryan Getzlaf roofed a rebound while falling to his knees. The game had been far from artistic, but the right team was on top, and was going to stay on top. There seemed no doubt of it.

And so, six minutes into the third period, a loud and sustained chant filled the Canada Hockey Place:


Five minutes later, Chris Pronger wanted a hole to climb into. The 36-year-old blueliner couldn't quite get wide enough to prevent renowned speed merchant Lubomir Visnovsky -- who is also a defenseman, and who was shooting from his backhand -- from lifting a rather feeble shot that somehow found its way between the near post and left pad of Roberto Luongo. After that, the chant about wanting the USA was retired for awhile.

Suddenly, and for the final 8½ minutes of this semifinal game, the club that eviscerated Russia two days earlier was bewildered, counter-punching, on its heels. "Up until they scored the first goal, said Pronger, we'd been getting pucks in deep." After Visnosvsky's goal, "we were a little hesitant to get the puck to the net, which allowed them to kind of gain mometum, and start coming at us in waves."

The second wave crashed on the Canadians with five minutes to play, when Michal Handzus, one of the best players to come out of Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, backhanded a rebound past Luongo, turning the volume w-a-a-a-a-y down in this arena. "Loo," as the fans call him, had achieved near-mythic status in two wins since replacing Martin Brodeur, goat of the loss against Team USA. But now he was losing his luster faster than Lehman Brothers. The Vancouver Canucks star does deserve credit for getting a glove or pad on Pavel Demitra's point-blank shot with eight seconds left. Demitra's miss preserved The Game We've All Been Waiting For -- Sunday's Battle for Bragging Rights on the Continent.

But it also begged the questions: Which is the real Team Canada? The bunch that put that incredible beatdown on Russia, preceded by an 8-0 spanking of Norway? Or the confused group who damn near gave the game away?

Friday's late-game collapse was an anomaly, the Canadian players agreed. They insist they've made great strides since the loss to Team USA. Back then, says Pronger, "I think we were stil trying to figure out line combinations, and understand the system and things like that. The third period tonight ... isn't the way we want to play.

What will be the key Sunday? Said Pronger, "We've got to get the puck in deep, and really play physical, and crash and bang and create a lot of opportunities.

"Obviously [American goalie] Ryan Miller's playing very well, and we need to get traffic in front of him. Force him back in his crease a little bit, not allow him to see the puck."

"We were too easy on Miller last time," agreed Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock. "We won't be this time."

"I think we did a great job in a lot of areas against the U.S., except put the puck in the net," said Morrow, scoring his first goal of the Olympics on Friday. "In a short amount of time, it's tough to get on the same page, but I think over the last few games we found it."

And then, for seven or eight minutes, they lost it. But they won, and move on. Will Friday's ugly ending carry over to Sunday?

Said Pronger, still in his skates, "I'm already over it."

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