SOCHI, Russia – Hours before his team would battle for an opportunity to play for gold here in Sochi, Canadian head coach Mike Babcock had an opportunity to meet with two members of the women's squad – Hayley Wickenheiser and Shannon Szabados – that rallied for gold of their own in historic fashion just a night earlier.
"I just think what it does for everybody in life is real simple," said Babcock early on Friday afternoon. "You don't give in. You just keep on keeping on. Is it going to go your way every time? No. But you choose your attitude and how you perform and how hard you dig in."
Nearly four years to the day of the 2010 gold medal match in Vancouver, his team dug in with its best effort of these Olympics, snuffing out the high-powered Americans for another opportunity at gold. The line between victory and failure was painfully thin at Bolshoy Ice Dome in a Friday evening clash of the tournament's two deepest teams, but ultimately Carey Price on the prowl, another Jamie Benn marker and a stiff Canadian defensive effort prevailed in a tight 1-0 win.
"If we were to think about that result and visualize it at the start of the day, we'd say, 'mission accomplished'," Price remarked afterward.
Their scoring struggles may have continued in victory – just four goals of offence in the past nine periods of regulation – but what Canada continued to do exceptionally well is defend, holding a potent U.S. team completely off the board. The Americans entered the night as the tournament's most fearsome offensive attack, scoring 20 goals in their first four games including five alone from Phil Kessel. But they were stifled by the Canadians, who have allowed, incredibly, just three goals and only two at even-strength.
"That's been something from Day 1 that we've really believed in and trust that that's a big part of having success here," said Sidney Crosby. "You see the games from every team at this point are pretty tight. That's a common theme. And there's not much separating each team."
Though the pace was absolutely frantic, the Canadians generally managed the feared American speed. Much of that effort came from simply controlling possession, forcing the likes of Kessel and Patrick Kane to defend a lot more than they'd like.
"We forced them to play in the defensive zone a lot," said Crosby. "They've got a lot of guys who are skilled and create a lot of speed, but I think we did a good job of keeping them in there for at least 20 seconds in shifts. Hopefully that played a part in taking away their energy offensively."
Toews and linemates, Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau, drew the assignment of the slowing the Kessel line – which also featured Joe Pavelski, who had the most goals in the NHL since Jan. 1 and James van Riemsdyk – and did so in part by back-checking with fevered passion, a commitment that was shared by the rest of the Canadian forward contingent.
Kessel had a rush or two of consequence early, but was held to four shots and none in the final frame.
"It was just work ethic," said Toews. "It was good sticks, I think we had active sticks … we didn't stop moving our feet, and we were committed to doing the job right. Our penalty kill was great tonight, too. Those are the things, whether you're winning a Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal, those are the things you need to do."
Zach Parise led the U.S. with eight shots and had one of the better opportunities to score in the second, redirecting a Patrick Kane pass attempt on Price, one of 31 shots turned aside by the 26-year-old in his first Olympic shutout.
Price was facing the biggest and most scrutinized test of his career and he aced it, outdueling the always impressive Jonathan Quick. A stoic and unwavering personality, Price, a native of Anahim Lake, B.C., was cool in his fourth start of these Games and made the difficult look effortless.
Maybe his most impressive stop of the evening saw John Carlson robbed by the glove in a scoreless opening frame.
"I thought he was great," said Babcock. "The game was close. It's 1-0, it's tight, and all those shots coming he had to make big saves, just like Quick did. It's not like there wasn't chances tonight. There was chances both ways, it's just that the goalies are so good in today's world it makes it hard to get pucks by them."
"I'm just soaking in this moment right now," said Price, who owns a .963 save percentage thus far.
Benn proved the only player on either team to score.
The 24-year-old scored his second goal (and second game-winner) by redirecting a Jay Bouwmeester point shot past Quick, who was often awesome himself in turning aside 36 shots, including all 16 in a busy first frame.
Only four Canadian forwards have scored with a game to go and if there is a concern heading into Sunday's final with Sweden, it's just that. Like the quarterfinal game against Latvia, there were numerous chances against the Americans on this night with only one resulting in a goal.
Patrice Bergeron had an early backhand opportunity eschewed by Quick's blocker. Carter was stopped by the pads moments later. Two good chances for Patrick Sharp, who offered energy on an effective fourth line with Matt Duchene and Rick Nash, also failed to materialize into anything other than a shot or two on goal.
"We've had unbelievable opportunities and still haven't finished," Babcock. "We're going to finish. We just hope we don't run out of time."
A journey that started six months ago at an orientation camp in Calgary will conclude Sunday against the injury-riddled, overlooked and still dangerous Swedes, who topped Finland in the other semifinal.
In line with Babcock's desired mantra at these Olympics, the Canadians have gotten better every day and know that will have to continue if they're to repeat with gold for the first time in more than 60 years and also join the undeterred women's squad, who rallied from a 2-0 deficit to capture their fourth consecutive gold on Thursday night.
"Each and every level of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you've got to keep getting better and it's the same here," said Babcock, who will face four of his Red Wing players in the gold medal match. "What I do know about the Swedes and I know lots of them actually, they're good players and they play with no ego and it'll be about the team. They've been really good here. They're going to be a hard test. We understand that."