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THN at the Olympics: Fast start will be key in dual-underdog gold medal game

Jamie Langenbrunner celebrates one of the United States' five goals during their matchup with Canada in the prelims. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Jamie Langenbrunner celebrates one of the United States' five goals during their matchup with Canada in the prelims. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

VANCOUVER – USA coach Ron Wilson said Saturday afternoon that he has heard Sunday’s gold medal game will be the most watched hockey game in American history.

All right, it won’t be the final episode of MASH or anything, but there is a fair bit on the line for the NHL and hockey in general here. The league is praying for a good contest more than anything and a day before the gold medal match, each team was talking a terrific game.

If both teams are to be believed, the first 10 minutes of the game will be played at a dizzying pace. Canada believes that it lost the round-robin game to USA because it did not get off to a good start and will be out to rectify that. The Americans, meanwhile, believe that if you simply try to weather the storm against a team as talented as Canada, you do so at your own peril.

“We’re not going to survive if we hide in a foxhole, I’ll tell you that,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to get out, play together and find a way to get on the attack. We’re not going to sit in a foxhole like we’ve seen some teams do in this tournament and wait for Canada to make a mistake. We’re going to force them into making mistakes if we can. If Slovakia had played (in the semifinal) with a little more urgency in the first two periods, maybe they would have won. I think that’s maybe why we beat the Finns (in the other semifinal). They’re playing in a group where nobody goes on the attack.”

Canada feels much the same way. After starting its more challenging games a little more skittish than they would have liked, the Canadians are getting much better starts, as was evidenced by how they dominated Russia early in the game.

“I think early in our last few games we’ve been finding ways to come out and just go and not be tentative,” Jarome Iginla said. “And we’ll be looking to do that again.”

Several of the American players said losing to them last Sunday might have been the best thing for the Canadian team that appears to have hit its stride since then. To be sure, the Canadian team is a much better and more cohesive one than took the ice a week ago. The key for the Canadian team will be to use its skill and size advantage wisely. It will need players such as Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to create obstructions and traffic in front of Ryan Miller, who has been so effective largely because he has seen almost every puck come at him.

In terms of hitting the scoresheet, the Canadians’ top line of Sidney Crosby between Eric Staal and Iginla hasn’t been able to accomplish much. That doesn’t concern Canadian coach Mike Babcock as much as that line playing a better game against the Americans than it did last time.

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“We’d like them to score and they want to score, too,” Babcock said. “But the reality is, in Pittsburgh’s run to the Cup last year, Sid didn’t score that much in the final. But he played well without the puck and helped his team win and that’s what it’s about. The night they had against the U.S. last time they were minus-3 and we can’t have that.”

Now that we’ve got the hockey out of the way, let’s move on to the posturing. Each side is stressing that it is the underdog in the gold medal game and each seems intent on one-upping its opponent in that regard.

The Americans even brought in YouTube sensation Joshua Sacco, the five-year-old who does the Herb Brooks speech prior to the Miracle on Ice game in 1980, to a team dinner. Canada points to the fact that the Americans have been the best team with the best goalie in the tournament, but American GM Brian Burke spun his usual gold Saturday when talking about which team is favored.

“You guys who believe Canada is the underdog, you should put on some knee-high boots because the manure is piling up in here,” Burke said. “This cracks me up. Everyone talks about playing the underdog card. I defy you to go back and show me an article two or three weeks ago that said U.S. would be playing in the gold medal game. We’re the youngest team in the tournament and no one expected us to get this far, let alone win this thing. We’re not playing a card here.”

The equally loquacious Wilson was also content to heap the pressure onto the Canadians.

“The Canadian team, on average, gets paid $3 million more per man than we do,” Wilson said. “They have so many more top goal scorers, top players on their team, award winners, go right through. We have a few, but not as many as Canada.”

Just so you know, Wilson is right about the award winners, but his remark about the salaries doesn’t pass the smell test. The Canadian players earn $5.56 million on average, while the Americans pull down $3.64 per season.

(Prediction: USA 3, Canada 2 in OT)

Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.

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