VANCOUVER — Scott Niedermayer knows what he's talking about.
He has won everything in hockey, from gold medals in every conceivable international tournament, including the Olympics, to four Stanley Cups. So when the Ducks defenseman says today's men's gold-medal grudge match between the United States and Canada has the feel of a "Game 7," he would know. "Everything's on the line," Canada's captain said.
Said U.S. general manager Brian Burke, "A gold medal immortalizes your team."
"You win something like this, you remember everyone you played with," U.S. center Paul Stastny of the Avalanche said. "It doesn't happen too often where you get to play for a gold medal against your rival on Canadian soil, where the fans are so into it."
This game feels so much bigger than 2002's gold-medal final between Canada and the United States, won by the Canadians in Salt Lake City. Maybe it's because it's in Canada, where the sport is sewn into the fabric of millions. Maybe it's that Canadian TV and radio have dissected every facet of these teams. Maybe it's because the United States beat the Canadians 5-3 on their home ice seven days ago and Canadians everywhere prayed for a rematch.
"It's neurotic," said U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson of the Kings. "Hockey is everything to these people. They could win every other event here, but if they didn't win hockey, it would be a disaster."
Canada has the waves of superstars, from the Penguins' Sidney Crosby to San Jose's No. 1 trio of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, a team that gets paid in the NHL on average $3 million more per man than the Americans.
But the Americans have the youthful enthusiasm (average age 26.5): Stastny, the Devils' Zach Parise, the Ducks' Bobby Ryan, the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane at forward, the Johnsons — Jack and the Blues' Erik — on the blue line. The team has proven to be fast, aggressive and aggravating to play against.
"We have the talent," said veteran goalie Ryan Miller of the Sabres. "We have some youthful excitement, we have the right kind of veteran players."
Last weekend the Canadians severely outshot the Americans, yet Miller stole the victory with 42 saves. The United States took advantage of some Canada mistakes, including a Crosby deflection into his net and goalie Martin Brodeur's puck-handling gaffes.
But these are two very different, much improved teams. The Americans have come together and aren't just relying on Miller. The Canadians have awoken, trouncing Germany and Russia.
"The past doesn't matter," Crosby said, "or who the favorite or who the underdog is. It's very similar (to a Game 7) for sure, but at the same time, what you have to do is pretty clear. You go out there and put everything you have in it."
Burke said all the pressure is on Canada. "Everyone talks about (the Americans) playing the underdog card," he said. "Well, I defy anyone in here to go back and show me a newspaper article from two or three weeks ago where they said the U.S. would be playing in the gold-medal game.
"We're the youngest team in the tournament. No one expected us to get even this far, let alone win this thing. It's not playing a card. We are the underdog."
So was the last U.S. gold medal-winning team, the 1980 group that had a movie, Miracle, made about its accomplishment.
Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr, a Canadian not on the Olympic team, quipped Saturday, "If the Americans win, they'll probably make another movie about it, so we don't want to see that happen."
Finns win bronze
Finland rallied from a late two-goal deficit for a 5-3 victory over Slovakia in the bronze-medal game Saturday night.
Olli Jokinen scored the tying and go-ahead goals during a four-goal third-period comeback by Finland, the only team to win four medals in the past five Games.
Pavol Demitra had a goal and two assists for the Slovaks, who couldn't win their nation's first medal in a team sport. Slovakia still had its best Olympic finish in fourth place.