VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Bodies and sticks and skates flew at Roberto Luongo while an entire nation tensed, praying there would be no deflection or bounce that would knock the puck into the net and wrest Team Canada's ticket to the Olympic gold medal game out of its sweaty grasp.
Slovakia, cautious for too long Friday in its semifinal game against the host nation, had charged within a hair's breadth of a titanic upset. Adrenaline flowed. Players pushed and shoved in desperation.
"It was the most fun I've ever had," Luongo said, smiling.
His enjoyment was soon shared by all of Canada, which watched him get his glove on a point-blank shot by his Vancouver Canucks teammate Pavol Demitra in the dying seconds to preserve a 3-2 victory and set up a championship match between Canada and the U.S. at noon PST Sunday.
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Canada started this tournament slowly, losing to the U.S. and needing a shootout to beat Switzerland in the preliminary round. That forced the Canadians to play an extra qualifying-round game, a journey that has been longer than the route taken by the U.S. (5-0). But all they care is that they are now where they feel they were meant to be.
"We were able to get it done tonight — that's the bottom line," said Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf, whose power-play backhander at 16:54 of the second period stood up as the winner. "They can get two goals as long as we get three.
"We took a different route than the U.S. to get there but bottom line is we're both in and we're both excited to be there."
Canada built a 3-0 lead on Patrick Marleau's redirection of a Shea Weber shot at 13:30 of the first period, Brenden Morrow's tip of a Chris Pronger shot and Getzlaf's second goal in two games. Getzlaf had skipped the morning skate to minimize the stress on the ankle he sprained a week before the Games, but he showed no signs of being hampered Friday.
Fans at Canada Hockey Place who were spoiled when Canada scored seven goals against Russia to win its quarterfinal triumph were expecting another scoring spree Friday, but Canada didn't get another shot past Jaroslav Halak.
In the meantime, Slovakia — making its first final four appearance — awoke in the third period and outshot Canada, 12-7. Lubomir Visnovsky got his team back in the game at 11:35 when he slipped a shot off Luongo's pad and inside the post, and Los Angeles Kings center Michal Handzus made it a one-goal game at 15:07 when he converted the rebound of shot by Richard Zednik, who eluded Drew Doughty to take a point-blank shot at Luongo.
"It's disappointing," said Handzus, whose team will play Finland for the bronze medal.
"They control the game for 50 minutes but we knew we couldn't open the game against them. We knew that we had to play our game. If we had opened the game in the second I think they would do what they did to Russia."
Doughty, trusted to play the last minute, knew the fans were antsy. "We were nervous as well, being on the bench," he said.
"We were confident we were going to get that win in the last minute but definitely nerves were setting in. We got some huge plays out there."
With those plays came their chance at Olympic supremacy, though they're taking the road more traveled.
"It just makes us more prepared," Doughty said. "We've had more chances to play with each other and I think that's the biggest thing in this tournament, getting used to the boys that you're playing with, and that should help us out."