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U.S. vs. Canada for chance to play in gold-medal game at Sochi

USA forward Zach Parise (9) celebrates his goal against Czech Republic with teammates Phil Kessel (81) USA defenseman Ryan Suter

USA forward Zach Parise (9) celebrates his goal against the Czech Republic with teammates Phil Kessel (81) and USA defenseman Ryan Suter during the second period of men's quarterfinal hockey game in Shayba Arena at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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Updated: February 20, 2014 5:58PM

SOCHI, Russia — No, it wasn’t guaranteed that the United States and Canada would meet again in the Olympics, four years removed from their epic gold-medal clash in Vancouver.

Heck, while the United States was stomping the Czech Republic 5-2, Canada was locked in a stunning battle against Latvia, needing a late goal by Shea Weber just to escape with a 2-1 victory.

United States-Latvia for a shot at gold just wouldn’t have the same ring to it, would it?

But here they are, two titans, ready for the rematch. Team USA vs. Team Canada. To Blackhawks fans, that means Patrick Kane vs. Jonathan Toews.

‘‘It’s two great teams,’’ Team USA star Kane said. ‘‘I think it’s the matchup everyone wanted.’’

Just a couple of hours earlier, Russia shuffled off the ice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome for the final time, a 3-1 loser to Finland, ready to face the odd mix of wrath and disappointment only a host country can feel when its pride and joy brings only shame and devastation.

That Team USA-Team Canada is a semifinal and not a gold-medal game does little to lessen the excitement. Sweden or Finland — two worthy, legitimate gold-medal contenders in their own right — will be waiting for the winner. But with Russia out, the main attraction comes Friday, not Sunday.

When they last met in 2010, an upstart U.S. squad pushed Canada into overtime on a late goal by Zach Parise before Sidney Crosby won it. But Team USA is no upstart anymore. In fact, it has been the clear class of the tournament, scoring at will and suffering no off nights, while Team Canada has trudged through defensive slugfests against Norway and Latvia.

The goal isn’t revenge for Vancouver. The goal is simply gold — something Team USA hasn’t won since the ‘‘Miracle on Ice’’ in 1980. It’s only fitting the road goes through Team Canada, a perennial power and Team USA’s biggest rival.

‘‘It’s become even a bigger rivalry than Canada-Russia,” Team Canada center Toews said. “There’s a lot of animosity, a lot of feelings, like there’s something to prove between both teams.”

While it’s unlikely the buzz in the arena will match the unforgettable U.S.-Russia preliminary match because of the absence of a home team, the play on the ice should be just as good, if not better. After playing European teams that use the wide ice to push oppo- sing forwards far from the net and clog up the slot with defenders, the offensively slumping Canadians will be glad to see a team that’s not afraid to push the pace.

And the natural rivalry between the neighboring countries should ratchet up the intensity plenty, whether the Russian fans care or not.

‘‘It’s what it’s all about, Canada-USA,’’ Toews said. ‘‘It’s for the chance to go and play for a gold medal. It doesn’t get any better than that — playing for your country and going against the United States. There are millions of kids that grow up dreaming of this situation. We have a chance of making a dream come true.’’

The players know each other well, from world juniors, world championships, the 2010 Games and the NHL. They know the history well, too. And they’re eager to make some more.

‘‘It seems like it was inevitable at some point we’d be meeting,’’ Team USA forward David Backes said. ‘‘Semifinals, in a foreign land. We’ve traveled 5,000 miles to play each other.’’


Twitter: @marklazerus

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