QUEBEC – Team Canada is on the verge of something very special.
The Russians are now the only team that stands in the way of Canada becoming the first country to win the IIHF World Hockey Championship on home soil since 1986.
It’s been a dazzling run to the gold medal game for a Canadian squad that is arguably as skilled as any that has ever been sent to this tounrnament.
No one has been able to match line of Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash – who are the top three scorers here after each contributing a goal in Friday’s 5-4 semifinal win over Sweden.
“We have an aura around us,” said Getzlaf. “We know we’re going to get it.”
The Swedes tested Canada more than any of its first seven opponents – especially in the second period. When Niclas Wallin scored just over two minutes into the frame, Canada trailed for the first time since this event started two weeks ago.
That lasted just one minute 12 seconds before Getzlaf tied it back up on a nice individual rush. He cradled the puck and cut right around defenceman Magnus Johansson before lifting it over Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulder.
The Canadians never looked back.
“When we get pushed we really respond,” said coach Ken Hitchcock. “We have done that all tournament. We’ve gotten pushed either early in games or at certain stages in games and we’ve been able to find another gear.”
They’ll need to hit overdrive on Sunday afternoon when they face a Russian team that is also undefeated here.
It’s only fitting that the longtime rivals will get a chance to play each other for world championship gold. That’s never happened before and the atmosphere at Le Colisee Pepsi will be electric when it does.
“You’re going to see one hell of a hockey game,” Finnish coach Doug Shedden predicted after his team was dispatched by Russia in the other semifinal. “There’s no clear winner.”
Few teams have played Canada as tough as the Swedes over the past 15 years. They had beaten Canada in seven of 15 world championship games heading in.
This game was at times played at a breathtaking pace, with the teams trading offensive chances and showing their skill.
Sweden had 21 players decline invitations to join the team but has had no trouble getting goals from a lineup featuring several European-based pros.
“They don’t have a lot of big names but they play extremely well collectively,” said Canadian goalie Pascal Leclaire, who made 30 saves in the win.
He’ll take a seat on the bench for the gold medal game as Cam Ward will get the start against the Russians. Ward was also in goal when Canada beat the Finns to win last year’s world championship in Moscow.
Jamal Mayers and Mike Green also had goals for Canada on Friday while Anton Stralman, with two, Wallin and Fredrik Warg replied for the Swedes. They’ll face Finland for the bronze medal on Saturday.
“This is extremely disappointing,” said Lundqvist, who was pulled during the second intermission after allowing five goals. “I wish I had a better game but I was just tired. It’s frustrating.”
One of the keys for the Canadian team ended up being a scouting report from assistant coach Pat Burns, who instructed the players to shoot high on Lundqvist.
“I guess it worked,” said Green.
It was the first time Canada played at Le Pepsi Colisee since a couple of pre-tournament exhibition games. They brought a taste of Halifax with them here as the team’s Maritime theme song “Barrett’s Privateers” was played during the warmup.
The Canadians played magnificently in the opening five minutes, outworking the Swedes in the offensive zone and putting several quality shots at Lundqvist. The Swedish goalie made eight early saves before Heatley finally got one past him.
He slipped free of Wallin and redirectd a Brent Burns pass behind Lundqvist at 5:35. Heatley celebrated by jumping hard into the boards, the most emotion he’s shown after any of his 11 goals during this tournament.
The sniper is now tied with Eric Lindros for the most world championship goals in one year by a Canadian player in the modern era. Lindros had 11 goals in 1993.
Canada’s top line has produced 20 goals in eight games.
“As a fan you’ve got to love watching them,” said captain Shane Doan. “They are so good. They make highlight reel goals every game.”
The game came alive in the second period when the teams started trading rushes and the noise from the sellout crowd of 13,026 grew.
Mayers made it 3-2 for Canada with a hard wrist shot at 8:31 before Stralman knotted the score with his second goal of the game on a power play at 11:29.
Then it was Nash’s turn to take centre stage. He took a pass in the neutral zone and split two Swedish defencemen before lifting it over Lundqvist.
Green delivered the decisive blow for Canada shortly after Sweden’s Jonas Frogren had been sent to the penalty box for four minutes after cutting Jason Spezza with a high stick. The Canadian defenceman raced down the wing and beat Lundqvist high to the glove side with 6.7 seconds left in the second period.
Warg made it 5-4 by knocking in a loose puck at 14:21 of the third but Leclaire wouldn’t be beaten again on this night.
Once the game was over, Hitchcock and Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson held a press conference in the bowels of the arena and started looking ahead to the medal games.
“Go beat those Russians now,” Gustafsson said to his Canadian counterpart.