SOCHI, Russia – The Canadians had to hurl nearly 60 shots at the Latvian goal to scratch their way into a semifinal matchup with the Americans, but by the time it was over head coach Mike Babcock was convinced the experience would be beneficial, much as it was four years earlier.
"Did I want to win 7-1? Absolutely,” said Babcock after a nervous 2-1 win in the quarter-finals against Latvia. “Do I think it's better for my team that we won the way we did? For sure."
It took every bit of mustard his team could find to finally get past the unlikely challengers from Latvia – a team they had never lost to in either the Olympics or World Championships – and avert disaster. Kristers Gudlevskis, an unheralded 21-year-old draft pick in executive director Steve Yzerman's Tampa Bay Lightning organization, stopped 55 shots and held the Canadians to just a single goal for the first 53 minutes of regulation.
Patience was tested and tested again and again with every chance, opportunity and flurry squashed by the apparent back-up Latvian netminder, starting with a Sidney Crosby breakaway in the opening moments and continuing right on through the rest of the night.
"Obviously when you're talking about 10 minutes left in the third and you look up and you've got 50-some-odd shots you don't want it to be one of those nights," said Crosby after the win. "I think that you just try to trust that eventually those chances will go in, stick with it."
Patrick Sharp became just the fourth Canadian forward to score, his first goal in the middle frame matched minutes later on a mildly shocking Lauris Darzins breakaway. From there the Gudlevkis show rolled on in ever-surprising fashion, some of the most gifted offensive talents on the planet stonewalled by a goaltender who was starting for the American Hockey League's Syracuse Crunch as recently as Feb. 5.
There was the stop on Jeff Carter in alone in the second period, a blocker save on Rick Nash in the third, a jam attempt by Chris Kunitz just a few minutes later. For a forward contingent struggling to score these were familiar troubles building in a game that Canada had no business not winning.
"If you look at tonight besides picking the puck up and throwing it in the net what could you tell someone to do in those situations," said Crosby, who still has yet to score in this tournament. "We had some great chances. You're getting chances like that there's not a lot you would change. It's not like you were going in there adjusting and trying to figure something out. I think it's just the ultimate test of your patience when you're getting chances like that and you need to find a way to score."
It's ultimately that persistence and push through the wall of a hot goaltender that Babcock believes will benefit his team moving into a 2010 gold medal game re-match with the Americans on Friday. Though they had only mild difficulties against Norway and Austria, the Canadians really only faced a stiff test from Finland in the final game of the preliminary round, a tilt they scratched out in overtime on the second of two goals from Drew Doughty.
On this night it was another defenceman proving the hero.
Shea Weber fired a cannon past Gudlevskis with less than seven minutes remaining in regulation, easing the nerves of a tense nation on the other side of the globe.
"We just talked about the hockey gods," Babcock said. "You just keep doing things right, you're going to be rewarded. We had some chances. So we just thought if we kept doing it, we'd get our chances, we'd get a break, we'd score a goal."
Though they inched closer to it in the close win over Latvia, Canada has yet to truly resemble the powerhouse it was expected to be here in Sochi. But they have, true to Babcock's word, gotten better with each day gone by.
They enter the semifinal, however, as an unlikely underdog, squaring off against an American squad that's stomped all of its competition here in Sochi. With the hottest player on the planet in Phil Kessel – who has nearly as many goals here in Russia (five) as the entire Canadian forward group (six) – and a battle-tested Jonathan Quick between the pipes, the U.S. has the look of a favourite in what should be an enticing rematch of the gold medal game in Vancouver.
"It's what it's all about," said Jonathan Toews of the matchup. "Canada-USA, I think has become a bigger rivalry than Canada-Russia. There's a lot of animosity, lot of feelings like there's something to prove between both teams. It's for the chance to go play for a gold medal. It doesn't get any better than that."
It took a few bumps and a similar crescendo for Canada to top the U.S. in Vancouver in 2010. There were familiar stumbles along the way – including a preliminary round loss to the U.S. – but ultimately, the Canadians got their game together as the tournament stretched on, dominating the Russians in the quarter-final before edging the Slovaks and Americans en route to gold.
Babcock is mindful of that path when he looks at the winding road thus far in 2014.
"The Olympic Games isn't supposed to be easy,” he said. “They don't just give the medals out. You earn the medals. Now we'd like to put ourselves in a situation to compete for one and we have another day to prepare [on Thursday]."