The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Posted: 02/21/2014 11:45 AM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 02/21/2014 9:23 PM | Updates
SOCHI, Russia - Jamie Benn was watching from his couch at home in Victoria when Team Canada beat the United States for Olympic gold four years ago. At the time, he didn't really think he'd be a part of the team trying to repeat that feat.
Still, he couldn't help but dream about playing in Sochi.
"I think it's hard not to," the Canadian forward said. "I definitely wanted to be a part of it this year and I found a way onto this team."
While the core of this year's team was built on the foundation of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it was Benn, goalie Carey Price and Canada's newcomers who led the way to a 1-0 victory over the U.S. Friday in the semifinals that gave Canada another shot at a gold medal Sunday against Sweden.
Minutes after making 31 saves in his first Olympic shutout, Price acknowledged being a bit "overwhelmed" by the whole situation. There's a reason he didn't look bothered at all.
"There's a lot of winners in that dressing room," Price said. "They all know how to play in tough situations and feel comfortable being uncomfortable."
This was as comfortable a situation as Canada has been in during this tournament, playing a more North American style against the U.S. than against European opponents. Coach Mike Babcock said it was hard to compare the pace of this one to the legendary final four years ago that was so fast it should've melted the ice under everyone's feet.
On Friday, Canada pushed the pace and had U.S. coach Dan Bylsma's team trying to keep up.
"They came at us with 20 guys. They came at us with speed and they came at us for 60 minutes and that was a fast game," Bylsma said. "That was as fast a game as I've ever been a part of."
That's not the case for Canada's 10 skaters and the United States' 11 who played in that overtime thriller in Vancouver. What was more impressive was how quickly a handful of new faces — from Benn and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester to Jeff Carter, Alex Pietrangelo and Patrick Sharp — adjusted to the blistering speed.
"For me it's the biggest game I've ever played in, so coming into the game there was no doubt my body was going to be ready and I was going to be ready for this game," said Matt Duchene, who replaced the injured John Tavares in Canada's lineup. "I can say the same thing for all of my other teammates who this was their first experience and (one) of the biggest games they've played in."
Price won world junior gold for Canada in 2007, beating the U.S in a seven-round shootout in the semifinals along the way. Since then, the goaltender hadn't been in as pressure-packed a situation as he faced Friday at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Yet Babcock never wavered on choosing Price as his starter ahead of Roberto Luongo, who was in net when Canada won gold in 2010. Price validated his coach's confidence against the U.S. while also showing he can be a big-game goalie.
"It's like anything, you build a resume over time in your career," Babcock said. "You build a resume and it gives you confidence. He's done that over time."
Benn built a resume to make this team very quickly. The forward who scored Canada's only goal 1:41 into the second period by deflecting Bouwmeester's perfect pass into the net behind Jonathan Quick, wasn't at Olympic orientation camp in August.
At the time, Benn wasn't happy about being left off that 47-man roster, and Babcock made it clear in Calgary that any player disappointed not to be there should prove why he belonged.
"It gave me a little bit of motivation to come into this year and have a good first half with my team back home," the 24-year-old winger said. "It's such a great honour to represent your country and put on this jersey, and I worked pretty hard to be here today."
Babcock said that he tries to explain to Canadians that it's hard to win in these situations and that "you don't just put your country's uniform on and win." Benn earned the Maple Leaf with a stellar first half for the Dallas Stars, and he has been one of Canada's best players through the first five games.
"He's got a real good presence down low and a great shot," said captain Sidney Crosby, who stood out against the U.S. despite not registering a point. "You can see on the goal how he works his way to get the front of the net. Like a lot of our forwards, we've got a lot of big guys who can create a lot around the net. He's one of them."
There was never any doubt that Canada had plenty of talented players. Only on Friday afternoon did Babcock say this was "starting to look like a team."
A team doesn't just come together after a handful of practices or even several games. But what this victory over the United States showed was just how well the new players have integrated with the group that was already in place.
"I think you sort of start from scratch," Bouwmeester said. "It's four years ago. I mean, a lot happens in that time."
Since then, it looked like the U.S. had caught up to Canada in the great race to produce hockey talent. U.S. general manager David Poile kept noting that his team was "one goal away" from gold in Vancouver, and he and his staff went about the process of trying to find that one goal to get the job done.
Instead, the Americans found themselves one goal short of a spot in the gold-medal game. That makes it sting even more.
"We all feel the disappointment of this game," Bylsma said. "Maybe the disappointment is it wasn't for a gold medal."
After coming to Sochi with a gold-or-bust mentality, it'll be bronze at best for the U.S., which plays Finland on Saturday for a chance to get on the podium. Winger Patrick Kane, who has had a disappointing tournament with zero goals and four assists, said settling for bronze is "better than nothing."
Added defenceman Ryan McDonagh: "We've got to finish here. We've got to battle with some pride. There is a medal on the line. Our boys will be ready."
In the same light, Canada plans to be ready to play Sweden in a matchup of the past two Olympic gold medallists. Duchene conceded already thinking about Sunday's game against the tournament's top seed.
That's where this team saw itself all along.
"I think a lot of people expect us to be there, and expect us to just show up in the final and have a chance to play for the gold medal, but we knew it was going to be a lot of work, a lot of effort and a lot of adversity to get there," alternate captain Jonathan Toews said.
Adversity came in the form of being in a tight game against Latvia in the quarter-finals and then knowing the U.S. was one shot away from tying the score in the semifinals. But Canada also continued an impressive trend of never trailing in this tournament, a testament to team defence that has been better than anyone expected.
"We can check, we can work our tails off and we can make things real tough for the other team," Toews said.
It's safe to say Canada did that to the United States on Friday night. The Americans entered the game with 20 goals — the most in the tournament — and couldn't crack the three-layered wall that ended with Price.
That was the game plan.
"If we were to think about that result and visualize it at the start of the day, we'd say, 'Mission accomplished,'" Price said.
But this group's mission is far from accomplished. Inspired by seeing Canada's women's team erase a late, two-goal deficit to beat the arch-rival Americans for the gold medal a night earlier, Babcock and his players learned the lesson to "never give in."
The connection didn't end there, as alternate captain Hayley Wickenheiser, starting goalie Shannon Szabados and forward Brianne Jenner were responsible for a letter posted in the men's locker-room that read: "Tonight is yours. Own the moment. We are proof that every minute matters. The podium is reserved for the brave. Earn every inch, dictate the pace. Go get em! From the girls! :)"
Team Canada did just that and is now one win away from being the first back-to-back Olympic champions since the NHL started sending players in 1998.
"We've got a great opportunity," Crosby said. "I don't think Vancouver means anything right now as far as what we have to do in the next 48 hours. Hopefully it will prepare us to a certain extent for the guys who were there, but I think it's an opportunity. It's what we worked for to get to this point and to get that opportunity. So we're just trying to make sure we've gotten better every game and hopefully we find our best here when it matters most."
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Updated on Friday, February 21, 2014 at 9:23 PM CST: Replaces with new version of Canadian Press video.
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