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Hockey final with a North American accent: United States vs. Canada

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WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) _ The Olympics ended up with an all-North American hockey final _ exactly the matchup many fans envisioned when NHL players entered the games in 1998.

The United States will play Canada on Sunday, with U.S. coach Herb Brooks going for another gold to add to his 1980 medal and the Canadian men trying to win the Olympic tournament for the first time in 50 years.

The matchup is so good _ NHL stars and teammates vs. NHL stars and teammates _ that Russian coach Slava Fetisov wondered after a 3-2 semifinal loss Friday to the United States whether the game was predetermined.

It wasn't a surprising comment, not at these games. The Russians had threatened to leave Salt Lake City because of alleged favoritism before backing off Friday.

That didn't stop Fetisov from suggesting the presence of NHL referees may have created a bias toward North American teams.

All three U.S. goals _ by Bill Guerin, Scott Young, Phil Housley _ came on the power play as the United States scored after three of the first four penalties against Russia.

Under an agreement between the NHL and hockey's international governing body, NHL referees must work any Olympic game in which a majority of the players are from the league.

``An agreement's been signed that is designed to have a final between Canada and the USA,'' Fetisov said. ``You have this final, you have NHL referees. ... They live here and they know the North American players.''

Russian goalie Nikolai Khabibulin didn't have a problem with Friday's officiating.

``The refereeing all in all was quite fair, and I think we shouldn't try to find fault in them,'' said Khabibulin, who faced 49 shots and six U.S. power plays. (The Russians had four power plays).

Still, Russian defenseman Danny Markov yelled angrily at referee Bill McCreary of Canada as they left the ice and was suspended for Saturday's bronze-medal game against Belarus.

The U.S. victory came on the 22nd anniversary of the ``Miracle on Ice,'' the Brooks-coached upset by U.S. amateurs over the powerful Soviet Union team considered the best in the world _ NHL players included.

There was no Cold War background this time and the teams both have multimillionaire superstars, but there was plenty of electricity.

The Americans opened a 3-0 lead after two periods by outshooting Russia by nearly 4-to-1. But a Russian rally on goals 3 1/2 minutes apart by Alexei Kovalev and Vladimir Malakhov created the same kind of frantically played third period as in the 1980 game won by the Americans.

U.S. goalie Mike Richter almost could have played the first two periods in a lounge chair, but had to make 17 of his 28 saves in the third.

Now, the Americans and Canadians will try to put together another classic, one featuring intriguing matchups such as the U.S. top line of John LeClair-Mike Modano-Brett Hull against the Canadians' Paul Kariya-Mario Lemieux-Steve Yzerman line.

Canada was given a virtual bye into the final, routing Belarus 7-1 two days after the Belarusians stunned Sweden in the quarterfinals. In a tournament filled with nearly every NHL star, the Canadians had to beat only Germany, Finland and Belarus to advance to the final.

Of course, they had to do it while carrying the heavy expectations of Canadian fans who consider a gold medal in their national sport almost a birthright.

``We're carrying the hopes of a nation, but somehow in Canada they expect more,'' said coach Pat Quinn, who was 9 when the Canadian men last won gold in 1952. ``If you get anything but a gold, you're a failure.''

Both the Americans and Canadians failed in Nagano in 1998, though in different ways. The Canadians started 4-0 and seemed headed for the gold medal, only to be eliminated in the semifinals by the eventual champion Czechs. The United States won only once in four games and never got even that far.

``You don't get to pick and choose who you will be playing against, but it certainly does make it dramatic,'' Richter said. ``It should be a fantastic 60 minutes of hockey.''

Especially after 20 such minutes Friday were so reminiscent of another dramatic third period 22 years to the night before.

In the 1980 game, the United States took a 4-3 lead on Mike Eruzione's goal, then held off a Soviet flurry in the closing minutes. This time, Russia's Igor Kravchuk said, ``We just did it too late.''

``Yeah, the last 10 minutes,'' Brooks said. ``No disrespect, but I know where you're going with that and I don't want to go back that way.''

Especially not when his team is still going forward, headed to the gold medal game for the first time since, yes, 1980. The women's Olympic tournament also ended with a Canada-United States final won by the Canadians on Thursday.

``It's perfect,'' U.S. defenseman Brian Leetch said. ``It's what everybody was hoping for.''

Everyone except Slava Fetisov.
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