Here — Finally — Come the Canadians

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As the U.S. and Canada marched — make that plowed — through the Olympic hockey tournament, beating nations that had been vigorously recruited by IOC head Jacques Rogge himself so that a draw of reasonable number could be made, there was never any doubt that the gold-medal game would be a rematch of the one four years ago that was won by the U.S., 3-1. It was nice, yesterday, that the Finnish women were determined to give Canada all they could handle in their semifinal game. Actually, they got more than the Canadians' attention when they lead after two periods. But then, ultimately, they could not stay with the more experienced and talented women of Canada and lost, 7-3, at the E Center. Now, the tournament begins.

It might be instructive for the Americans — not to mention you prospective viewers of the final game — to look more closely at what happened yesterday. The analysis shows how the Canadians can (and the bet here is will) be beaten.

The Finns were aggressive right from the start. That helped them at times, but it also lead to seven penalties. It proved especially costly early when Paivi Salo was sent to the penalty box at 4:02 of the first period for body checking. Therese Brisson's slapper from the right point following a botched clearing attempt with four seconds left in the penalty gave Canada a 1-0 lead.

Finland's Salo drew a hooking penalty on Vicky Sunohara, but on the subsequent powerplay, Hayley Wickenheiser finished off a 2-on-1 break with a backhander past Finnish goalie Tuula Puputti to give Canada a shorthanded goal and a 2-0 lead.

The rest of the period, Canada dominated play, outshooting Finland 18-7. But Puputti held fast until Finland was able to break through late. Tiia Reima's gentle hook on Jayna Hefford caused a turnover behind the Canada net. The puck was thrown in front and in the ensuing scramble, Reima batted home Finland's first goal. That seemed to stun the Canadians and, as Puputti said, "gave us more strength and faith going to the second period." It was Reima's first goal of the tournament and the first allowed by Canada.

The lesson: Hang with them. Canada can rattle.

After killing off the penalty to start the second period, Finland pulled even at on a well-executed 2-on-1 break. Reima gathered in a pass from Sari Fisk and flipped it over the right pad of Canada goalie Kim St-Pierre for her second of the game. Less than a minute later, Katja Riipi deflected in a perfect centering pass from Reima to give the Finns a 3-2 lead.

As the teams left the ice for the second intermission, there must have been some anxiety in the Canadian locker room, no? Not according to the players and coaches. "There was no panic," said Brisson. "We had a quiet confidence." Just to be sure, captain Cassie Campbell implored her team "to come back harder in the third period."

And they did. From the opening faceoff, they played with renewed energy and purpose, narrowly missing on a number of chances. That's when the veteran Wickenheiser took over by taking a pass at the blue line and splitting the defense for a breakaway backhander to tie the score.

Then before the fans sat down, Jayna Hefford took the center ice faceoff from Sunohara and raced in on yet another breakaway, and beat Puputti just six seconds after Wickenheiser to give Canada a 4-3 lead. Now it was the Fins' turn to be stunned. They immediately called a timeout, which appeared to calm the team down.

For the rest of the period, Canada not only kept up the offensive pressure but also played a stiffling defense. In a magical moment with 2 1/2 minutes left in the game, Danielle Goyette, cruising just past the Finn blue line, slipped the puck between the legs of a Finn, retrieved it and slid a backhand pass to Sunohara, who blasted a shot by Puputti from the slot. That was it. Finland had given its all but could not overcome the talent, determination and relentlessness of the Canadians.

Lesson: If Canada starts coming, don't sag. One goal can quickly lead to three.

The Canadians are a veteran team with a wealth of talent. But in a week of hockey during which the U.S. and Canada were supposed to show us all just how invincible they are against any opponents beyond one another, one team did, and the other team sorta did. The Americans are, no doubt, taking a lesson.