U.S. and Canada set for hockey showdown

The neighbors play tonight, with an automatic berth in the quarterfinals at stake.

Posted: February 21, 2010

VANCOUVER - It's not the gold-medal game, but it's going to feel like one.

Canada and Team USA finally face off tonight (7:40) in men's ice hockey.

The game has had fans on both sides of the border buzzing for weeks and will be played before 19,100 amped-up spectators at Canada Hockey Place - most of them waving the maple leaf flag, all of them screaming their lungs out.

"It is going to be the best atmosphere probably since the World Cup in 1996," when Team USA beat Canada in the final," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said.

Both teams have 2-0 records, though Canada struggled in its 3-2 victory over Switzerland on Thursday. It took a goal by Sidney Crosby in a shoot-out to end it.

A shoot-out victory is worth two points in the Olympic standings compared with three for a regulation victory, which means Canada has five points and faces a must-win game against Team USA, which has six points.

An automatic berth in the quarterfinals is at stake, and the winning team will have an easier road to the gold-medal game.

The United StatesS entered the tournament as an underdog, with the average age of its 23 players just 26.5. Only three have Olympic experience: Chris Drury of the New York Rangers and Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings played in the 2002 and 2006 Games, and captain Jamie Langenbrunner of the New Jersey Devils was on the 1998 team.

"We did a lot of soul-searching before turning the page on a lot of great players," said general manager Brian Burke. "This is a young team. We're, on average, five years younger than we were in Turin [in 2006]."

Burke chose specialists, each with a designated role, to fill his roster. The Canadian team is loaded with NHL superstars.

"We picked players with specific job skills and to do specific tasks," Burke said. "We have to pick specialists. If we're successful, they'll say it was a stroke of genius. If we're not, they'll say we took the wrong guys."

The United States has beaten Switzerland, 3-1, and Norway, 6-1, though Wilson was disappointed in his team's play against the Norwegians.

"Like any young team, we thought it was going to be easy," he said. "Our guys were guilty of looking past Norway and looking ahead to Canada."

If Team USA has an advantage, besides the enormous amount of pressure on Canada to win gold on home soil, it's team speed. Roy Johansen, Norway's coach, said after losing to both teams that the Americans were faster than the Canadians.

"We have developed a lot of really fast hockey players," Wilson said.

The United States and Canada have met 15 times in Olympic competition. The Americans are 2-10-3 in those games and haven't won a game against the Canadians since Feb. 25, 1960, at Squaw Valley, Idaho. The United States has lost the last six meetings, including the gold-medal game in 2002.

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