- Scott Burnside, NHL
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TORONTO -- These are nervous hours for a team that should not lose and a country that could not bear such a thought.
With the images of the powerful Swedes being blown out by a Czech Republic team that seemed just days ago in disarray, and a resurgent American squad's emotional win over favored Russia still fresh in their minds, Canada approaches its quarterfinal date Wednesday night with Slovakia with equal parts anticipation and angst.
No matter how impressive the Canadians have been in rolling to a perfect 3-0 record in the preliminary round of this World Cup of Hockey, no matter how heavily favored the Canadians are to easily dispatch winless Slovakia, there remains that small hiccup of doubt, that nagging notion of what if.
"In this format, history has shown us that good teams get knocked off," Team Canada head coach Pat Quinn said hours before the start of the game. "There's risk in here. You see sometimes teams that might be a little bit better on paper don't handle the stress very well."
The Swedes would be Exhibit A.
Hoping to put behind them the shocking loss to Belarus in the quarterfinal of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Swedes instead gagged once again in their 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the Czechs in front of a horrified hometown crowd in Stockholm on Tuesday. In the aftermath of the loss the Swedish media were sharpening their knives for what is now the ritual dismembering of the powerful Swedish national team. A similar fate will await the Canadians if they stumble against a Slovakian team that has scored just four times in the tournament.
"That's handling the adversity. You're going to have it," Quinn said. "It can ruin how you play or it can hopefully have your players stick with the plan that's there and you find a way to get through it. But that's the fear of the one-game series.
"There's no way to practice for it. You have to have been there before and then learned from how you handled it last time. As a group, I think we've got some solid, mentally tough guys."
Through the three preliminary games, Canada established itself as the top team in the eight-team tournament. It allowed only three goals and have yet to trail.
But the results of the first three quarterfinal games emphasized it's about a team's evolution not its reputation. The Americans looked out of gas through most of the preliminary round and were considered underdogs against a swift, talented Russian team before Keith Tkachuk's virtuoso four-goal performance in a 5-3 win Tuesday night. Even the Finns, who earned top seed in the European pool by virtue of a better goal differential, struggled against lowly Germany, advancing to the tournament's final four with a 2-1 win thanks to a late third-period goal.
"Everyone was burying the Czech Republic and look what they did. Obviously Slovakia's very excited to be in this situation," said Kris Draper, winner of the 2004 Frank J. Selke Award as the NHL's top defensive forward.
Slovakia general manager and national hockey icon Peter Stastny remained upbeat about his team's chances, saying he thought there has been improved play throughout the tournament even though they have been ravaged by injuries to top players Ziggy Palffy, Peter Bondra and Michal Handzus. Asked if he could imagine what would happen in Canada if the Slovaks won, Stastny grinned.
"Yes I can imagine. I can imagine," he said.
The Slovak's hopes for an upset will lie almost solely on the shoulders on netminder Jan Lasak, although coach Jan Filc was being coy in naming a starter for Wednesday's game. Lasak practiced longer Wednesday morning, leading some to speculate that Washington Capitals prospect Rastislav Stana might get the start. But Lasak, who guided the Slovaks to a gold medal at the 2002 World Championship and has helped backstop them to the No. 3 ranking in the world, was expected to start even though he turned in an ordinary .852 save percentage in two preliminary games.
The Slovaks will also have to get some offensive help from a dormant group of stars like Pavol Demitra (0 goals), Marian Hossa (one point) and Marian Gaborik (one point). It will be up to a disciplined Canadian team to ensure that doesn't happen.
"Every time you look at scoring leaders in the NHL they have a lot of the guys that are up there. They have guys that can put the puck in the net," Draper said. "Obviously we want to pay attention to detail. We want to be very stingy in our end. When you have a guy like Hossa on the ice, Gaborik, you've got to find those guys. You've got to eliminate those guys and you've got to play those guys hard. That's exactly what our game plan is tonight."
Although the youthful Canadians have answered many questions about their ability to perform under the glare of the national spotlight, Wednesday marks the first time many will face the prospect of elimination before a national audience that hungers for nothing less than a championship. The fact that many, including Draper, Dany Heatley, Shane Doan and Jay Bouwmeester who was once again expected to be in the lineup for the injured Wade Redden, have faced similar situations en route to gold medals at the past two world championships should help lessen the butterfly factor.
Lessen but not eliminate.
"The expectations, it doesn't really matter where we are, they're always there," added Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "I think the pressure really motivates the whole team. It motivates us to make sure we're ready for it. We'll be ready."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
After watching the Swedes and Russians fall to lower-seeded teams, the Canadians are on full alert against the Slovaks.