|ESPN.com: Ice Hockey||[Print without images]|
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- So the door to redemption is open for Canada's hockey team.
A gold-medal game Sunday afternoon against the red-hot Americans is a chance to erase the stain of disappointment that has dogged the Canadians since their disastrous seventh-place finish at the 2006 Torino Games.
Four years is a long time to wait to erase a mistake, to regain your pride, to right a wrong. After sneaking past Slovakia 3-2 on Friday night, the Canadians will have to wait another day to find out what lies on the other side of the threshold.
They won't mind the wait, of course.
"If you're not here and you don't have that opportunity, if you're not in the final four, I think it's tough on you," Canadian coach Mike Babcock said. "This way, we have a shot, and to me, that's all you can ask for. I think it's real special for those guys.
"Everybody wants to be proud. No one wants to finish eighth or whatever the number was [in Torino], so it's a good opportunity for the whole group. But we've got [to be] a lot better than we were today, but we've got a chance to do that."
Babcock is right.
The Canadians, who jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the 16-minute mark of the first period and added a third goal before the seven-minute mark of the second period, looked to be cruising into the gold-medal game before the Slovaks finally woke up and made things interesting.
Roberto Luongo allowed a bad short-side goal to Lubomir Visnovsky with 8:25 left in the third, and then Michal Handzus made it 3-2 with fewer than five minutes to play to set up a wild and woolly final minute. Luongo made up for his gaffe by turning in a couple of sparkling saves in the dying seconds to preserve the win.
"I thought our guys came unraveled a little bit at the end," Babcock said. "If you stop playing, you're not going to win."
Four years ago, Canada lost in the quarterfinals to Russia. The way the Canadians played, they might as well have been a million miles away from the gold medal ultimately won by Sweden.
For four years, Canadians everywhere and members of the 2006 team have been waiting for a chance to make it right. That chance is now at hand.
"Well, we're not there yet. We got to the game, but it's far from over," said defenseman Chris Pronger, who was part of the team in Italy. "Obviously, the U.S. is playing with a lot of confidence and playing very well. Their goalie is playing very well. So we've got our hands full."
Does being in this game, assured of at least a silver medal, ease some of the disappointment from Italy?"No," Pronger said. "Sunday will be the test for that. We didn't come here to just get there. We came here to try and win it. As I said, Sunday we'll see."
A lot changes in four years, of course. The Americans finished even worse than the Canadians in Italy (eighth) and are in the final with a perfect 5-0 record. This Canadian squad is infused with youth in the form of defensemen Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber, and forwards Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
"Every Olympics is a completely different thing," said Dany Heatley, another of the five skaters and two goalies who are holdovers from 2006. "It's a different team than last time. It's great to get another chance to do it, especially at home in Vancouver."
Four years ago, Crosby was a rookie and watched from home when the Canadians failed to reach the podium. He doesn't think getting out from under that weight is a matter of great importance to the returning guys.
"I don't think that's going through our mind a whole lot, to be honest. We know we have a great opportunity, that's the way we're looking at it," Crosby said. "We know we have a tough opponent here who's rolled through the tournament pretty well. But we're looking forward to the chance we have."
The chance to exact some revenge on the Americans who beat Canada 5-3 during the preliminary round is more central to the issue than the Italian experience, which was forgettable for both nations.
"You always want a chance if a team beats you earlier in the tournament. No better place to do it than in the final game," Heatley said.
"Well, we've got something to prove against them," added forward Brenden Morrow. "I don't think there's a mistake these two teams are in the final. I think they both deserve to be there. It's going to be a good battle. You'd like to be playing a beer-league team in the final, but that's not the case. It's going to be a great battle and we're looking forward to it."
It was Babcock who noted the United States' improved development in hockey has put a finer edge on the rivalry between the two countries.
"The way I look at it, it's the rubber match. They won the world juniors, we won the women's [gold] and here's a rubber right here," Babcock said.
Bring it on.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.