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Olympics / Sports

Canada and USA warm up for a men's hockey semifinal at Bolshoy Ice Dome during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Analysis: A Canada victory would be validation for Mike Babcock

ADLER, Russia -- The last time Canada played a hockey game in Russia as big as Sunday's Olympic Games gold medal final with Sweden, 9-year-old Mike Babcock was a third grader in the mining town of Leaf Rapids, Manitoba.

On that historic Thursday in September 1972, his teacher, Mr. Jeffries, ran back and forth between the classroom and the school's office to get updates on Game 8, the final contest in the 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the Soviet Union being played in Moscow.

On his final trip back from the office, Mr. Jeffries told his class that Paul Henderson had scored the decisive goal. Team Canada had won. It was a moment that would freeze millions of Canadians in time, a nation's emotional touchstone just as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was for Americans.

Sunday afternoon Babcock will be behind the bench at the Bolshoy Ice Dome instead of desk with Canada, once again on the brink of history in a showdown between the last two Olympic champions.

With a victory against the Swedes, Canada would become the first North American team to win an Olympic tournament held outside its home continent since 1952. A win would also make Canada the first Olympic champions to successfully defend the gold medal since the Soviet Union repeated in 1988.

"A great opportunity," Canada captain Sidney Crosby said.

An opportunity that came courtesy of a unheralded Canada forward Jamie Benn, a smothering Canadian defense and brilliant goaltending from Carey Price in a 1-0 victory against the U.S. in a fast-paced semifinal and rematch of the 2010 Olympic final Friday night.

"We've got one more game to prove we're on top, we're the best," Canada forward Jonathan Toews.

For Sweden, the 2006 Olympic champion, the final marks a return to the global sport's marquee game after failing to medal four years ago in Vancouver.

"We haven't talked about Vancouver," Sweden coach Par Marts said. "This is a new moment, new guys, new dreams."

The "new guys" crushed an old dream with a 2-1 victory against ancient rival Finland in Friday's opening semifinal. The Swede victory ended Finland and Ducks forward Teemu Selanne's quest for the gold medal that eluded him through six Olympics. Finland and the U.S. meet for the bronze medal Saturday.

"Obviously it would have been nice to see him on the other side" in the final, Canada and Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf said.

Not that Sweden will be a stranger to Canada. Swedish forward Jakob Silfverberg plays with Canadian forwards Getzlaf and Corey Perry with the Ducks. "A gold medal for Anaheim," Getzlaf said.

"Obviously, I'm a huge fan of Swedes," Babcock said laughing.

Five of them play for Babcock's Detroit Red Wings.

A victory would be validation for Babcock, who despite leading Canada to the gold medal four years ago, has come under criticism for Team Canada's low scoring, not always entertaining style. The three goal scorers from the 2010 finals, Crosby, Toews and Perry, remain goal-less in the tournament.

"It's all part of the process in Canada," Babcock said. "Everyone (in the nation) is interested, everyone invested."

Babcock recalled a charity event with a group of plumbers before the 2010 Games.

"And they knew every player, everything," Babcock said. "Why wouldn't they second-guess what you're doing and question what you're doing?

"It's such an honor to have an opportunity to coach these teams, and you have to take your responsibility to your country and to hockey very seriously. Having said that, and people don't ever believe me, but you have to line up the moon and skies to win. People don't always believe that in Canada but it's the facts."

Friday it was an alignment of Canada's team defense, Price's goaltending and Benn's clutch goal that decided a game played at blistering pace on the big sheet of Olympic ice.

"That was a fast game, as fast a game as I've been a part of," U.S. coach Dan Byslma said. "A lot of speed out there."

Yet despite the pace, the U.S. was repeatedly denied openings into dangerous areas.

"We took away their space. They're a high-scoring team and a high-flying team," Getzlaf said. "You watch them in all their games, they're scoring a lot off the rush and we got in their face in the neutral zone and it slowed them."

Price stopped 31 shots.

"They had some pretty good opportunities," Canada defender Duncan Keith said, "and Carey made some great saves on some plays that could have been the difference in the game."

Instead, with U.S. goaltender Jonathan Quick making 36 saves, the difference ended up coming on a Benn goal 1:41 into the second period.

When Canada and the U.S. met in the 2010 Olympic final, Benn was a Dallas rookie back home in British Columbia on the NHL's break.

"I was sitting on my couch at home, just like every other Canadian at home today," Benn said.

Benn wondered if he wouldn't be on the couch again during the Sochi Games. He wasn't among the 45 players invited to Canada's team orientation camp in Calgary last August.

"He's kind of hidden in Dallas in the NHL," Canada forward Matt Duchene said, "but he is really showing what he can do now."

After a faceoff in the U.S. end, Benn sent a puck dug out of the corner to defender Jay Bouwmeester near the blue line and then positioned himself near the crease. When Bouwmeester unleashed a shot, Benn was in the right place to redirect it past Quick.

"We found a way to get one," Benn said.

And on Sunday against Sweden that's all that will matter to a nation once again glued to a broadcast from Russia, a country of Mr. Jeffries trying to keep up with a team once again chasing history.

"Everybody wants to beat Canada when you come to tournaments like this," Canada defender Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "We've played a lot of defensive games. But it doesn't matter how you get there as long as you get there. That's what Canada wants. That's all Canada cares about."

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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