By Steve Keating
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Canada and the United States were preparing to take centre stage at the Sochi Winter Games in a mouth-watering men’s ice hockey grudge match on Friday with the winners earning a shot at Olympic gold.
Thousands of miles and nine times zones away, hockey-mad Canadians – still buzzing from a stunning 3-2 overtime win over the United States in the women’s final on Thursday – were waking up to another day of compelling action on the ice.
“You don’t give in, you do not give in,” Canada coach Mike Babcock told reporters following a pre-game skate when asked if his team would take anything from the women’s comeback victory over the Americans.
SPECIAL SECTION: 2014 Olympics
“You just keep on keeping on,” he said. “Is it going to go your way every time? No, but you choose your attitude, how hard you are going to perform and you dig in.
“I am pumped.”
And so is the entire country.
Businesses across the Great White North are expected to empty and bars will fill to capacity as millions of hockey fans tune in to watch the first meeting between the North American rivals since Canada claimed the Olympic title four years ago in Vancouver with a golden goal from Sidney Crosby.
The stakes will be nearly as high on Friday at the futuristic Bolshoy Ice Dome with the winners advancing to Sunday’s final against Finland or Sweden, who face off in the other semi.
Both teams enter the do-or-die contest unbeaten but arrived in the final four in contrasting fashions, the Americans blasting to a comfortable 5-2 win over the Czech Republic and Canada surviving a scare from tiny Latvia before edging through 2-1.
Canada and the United States have clashed 17 times on Olympic ice with Canada winning 11.
When the Americans beat Canada 5-3 in the preliminary round at the Vancouver Games it marked their first Olympic victory over their northern neighbors in 50 years.
The United States are led by the tournament’s leading scorer Phil Kessel, who has five goals and three assists in four games, while Canada have leaned heavily on a defense anchored by Drew Doughty and Shea Weber.
Canada are trying to win their first Olympic gold medal outside North America in 62 years and become the first country since the 1988 Soviets to defend their crown.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)