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Published: Saturday, 2/27/2010

Canadians hold on to beat Slovakia

ASSOCIATED PRESS

VANCOUVER - Now, the rematch.

Canada opened up a three-goal lead, then held off a late Slovakia comeback to win 3-2 in the Olympic semifinals last night to earn a second chance against the United States in the gold-medal game.

The unbeaten Americans routed Finland 6-1 earlier yesterday but must beat favored Canada for a second time in eight days to win their first Olympic gold since the Miracle on Ice in 1980. Canada will be trying for its first gold medal won on home ice.

Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow, and Ryan Getzlaf scored in the opening 24 minutes to give Canada a seemingly safe 3-0 lead before Slovakia, an Olympic semifinalist for the first time, created a tense finish with goals from Lubomir Visnovsky and Michal Handzus less than four minutes apart in the third period.

The Canadians played the game they needed to play to get to the game they simply had to play.

For Canada, the thought of not winning a gold medal in its national sport at home was unthinkable. Not getting a chance to go for that gold because of a tournament-derailing 5-3 loss to the rival United States and its supposedly inferior team last Sunday was unfathomable.

The Canadians didn't come out like "gorillas from a cage," as Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov described them after their relentless, aggressive offense produced four goals in the first period of a 7-3 rout of Russia on Wednesday. The no-risk Slovaks wouldn't let them; Slovakia didn't play a delay game, but they didn't allow the Canadians much open ice or concede any possessions.

With Canada's deep pool of offensive talent, and goalie Roberto Luongo standing up to the few rushes the Slovaks managed until the final 10 minutes, it was only a matter of time.

Marleau got the breakthrough first goal at 13:30 of the first, putting his stick up to redirect defenseman Shea Weber's shot from the right point as goalie Jaroslav Halak reacted a millisecond too late. Canada waited a few anxious minutes for the replay to confirm that Marleau's stick wasn't above the crossbar, which would have negated the goal.

Morrow, a contributor now after being Canada's extra forward when the tournament began, made it 2-0 only 1:47 later when he deflected defenseman Chris Pronger's knuckleball-like shot from above the left circle. Pronger also helped set up Canada's third goal, a Getzlaf rebound on a power play early in the second that resulted from Richard Zednik's holding the stick penalty.

Luongo, winning his third in a row in his NHL home arena since replacing the benched Martin Brodeur, faced only nine shots in the first two periods and 21 overall but lost his shutout when Visnovsky scored at 11:35 of the third. Then, Handzus scored at

15:07, and a safe lead suddenly became a tentative one - especially when Pavol Demitra almost tied it in the final five seconds, only to have his shot sail wide.

It was no Russian rout, but the result was the same. Canada patiently waited for chances and got them, with three goals manufactured by defensemen that resulted from traffic in front of the net - something the Canadians said beforehand was a necessity against Halak.

The NHL must be loving it as much as the Canadian fans who, with 14 minutes left in the game, began chanting, "We Want U.S.A.!"

The league takes a risk every four years that shutting down to send nearly 150 of its best players to the Olympics for two weeks will pay off in increased interest in hockey, especially among casual sports fans. It didn't happen in 2006, when Sweden and Finland met in a gold-medal game largely ignored in the United States.

This time, it's the closest thing possible to a must-see game, at least in North America.



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