Team USA gets a shot at host Team Canada 

Teams face each other in final pool-play game

It is the one medal at these 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver that means the most to Canadian fans.

Winning gold in women's speedskating and men's freestyle skiing was nice. But the men's hockey tournament is about defending their national sport.

The frenzied crowd support gives the Canadian team a distinct home-ice advantage. But there are problems with that, too -- a pressure that is "glacial and unremitting and unrelenting," according to Team USA general manager Brian Burke, who witnessed it daily in the weeks before the tournament because he is also general manager of the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs.

USA-Canada notes

» The last time Canada and the United States met in the Olympics was the gold-medal game in 2002 in Salt Lake City. The Canadians won, 5-2.

» Forward Ryan Malone leads a balanced United States attack with two goals and an assist through two games.

» Team USA’s fourth line of Bobby Ryan, Ryan Callahan, David Backes and extra forward Chris Drury has produced three goals and two assists. The top line of Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Paul Stastny? Just one goal and two assists.

Team USA will get a taste of that charged atmosphere firsthand when it plays Canada in a highly anticipated game at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Canada Hockey Place in downtown Vancouver.

It is not an elimination game. The two teams are finishing pool play in Group A. The winner gets an automatic bye into the quarterfinals. The loser, however, might have to play a first-round playoff game -- and therefore need four more wins to earn a gold medal instead of three. In such a compact tournament, that extra night of rest is vital.

"We're all professionals," said United States captain Jamie Langenbrunner. "We've all played in difficult buildings and difficult situations and understand the pride that Canada has in their hockey. But I think USA is starting to put their foot on the map, too."

Canada may be the favorite. But it struggled at times during Thursday's 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland. Because that victory did not come in regulation, the Canadians only earned two standings points and have five overall. That leaves them trailing the United States, which beat Norway and Switzerland in its first two games and has six standings points. A win over Canada would be a huge boost heading into the elimination round.

"There's always a chip on your shoulder when you get up there against the Canadians," said United States forward Ryan Malone. "You want to prove yourself to everyone. We like being the underdog. My whole life I've loved proving people wrong. So it would be a great place to do it."

But is Team USA playing well enough defensively? Even in Thursday's 6-1 win over Norway there were far too many 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 chances allowed. No one needs to tell coach Ron Wilson that those are opportunities the Canadians -- more often than not -- will put away. That may mean a change in tactics from an overtly aggressive defensive approach in the first two games.

"We obviously know we've got to play better," Langenbrunner said. "We haven't played our best, but that's a good thing. You're going to see a different level game on Sunday."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

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I've been given the chance to write about some of the best athletes in the world. Can't imagine a job more fun than that.
Teams I cover » Capitals, Nationals
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