SOCHI -- To everyone back home, Canada reaching the Olympic final was a given before the Sochi Games even began.
But it's not quite that easy. Canada has a shot to become the first team since 1988 to win back-to-back gold medals because of stingy defense, a stellar goalie, stars who were willing to sacrifice their egos and, coach Mike Babcock said, a healthy dose of luck.
"You have to line up the moon and the stars to win. People don't believe that in Canada, but it's the truth," Babcock said after his team reached the Olympic final with a 1-0 victory over the Americans on Friday in a rematch of the gold-medal game four years ago.
"These medals are hard to come by, and you want to make good on your opportunities."
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The Canadians will face Sweden for the gold medal on Sunday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
The Olympic title was practically a birthright for the Soviets, who won seven from 1956 to '88. (The Unified Team won in 1992). But with the dissolution of the country, and the addition of NHL players, the Olympic tournament has become a free-for-all.
Not only has no champion repeated since 1988, but Canada is the only country to make back-to-back title games. It also did it in 1992 and '94, winning the silver medal each time.
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Every squad is filled with top-level talent, and countries know their opponents so well before the tournament begins they barely need scouting reports. But Babcock has designed a team that can handle the various styles of play, bigger ice and grind of an Olympic tournament.
Aside from a 6-0 blowout of Austria, the Canadians haven't scored much in Sochi, tallying 14 goals in five games. But their defense is tough enough to carry them, outworking and outhustling every one of their opponents.
The Americans are not exactly slouches, bringing the most efficient offense of the Olympics (20 goals on 120 shots) into the semifinal. But the Canadians brought relentless pressure, shift after shift of speed and strength, and the Americans were no match.
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Even after the Canadians got a goal 1:41 into the second period on Jamie Benn's sweet deflection of Jay Bouwmeester's shot, they didn't let up.
"That was as fast a game as I've ever been a part of," U.S. coach Dan Bylsma marveled. "There was lots of speed up out there, and it was up and down the ice."
They'll need every bit of that speed against Sweden, which plays just as disciplined and unselfish a game. But this is what Canada has been aiming for since it won the gold medal on home ice four years ago.
USA and Canada face-off again for the gold medal, four years after Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning goal in Vancouver. USA TODAY Sports Gannett
Winning in Vancouver was an incredible honor, something no one who was a part of that team will ever forget. Hockey means more in Canada than anywhere else, and the entire country shut down for the game.
Sochi is a long way from Vancouver – the decibel level in the Bolshoy never got above a dull roar Friday – but this opportunity is no less special.
We have an opportunity," captain Sidney Crosby said. "This is what we worked for, to get to this point. Hopefully we find our best here when it means the most."