Pick ’em: CP hockey writers at odds over Canada’s gold-medal opponent

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By Bill Beacon and Chris Johnston

VANCOUVER — With a thrilling and unpredictable Olympic men’s tournament nearing its conclusion, one can’t help but wonder what might be in store on the final weekend.

The lower-ranked teams made a pretty good account of themselves here — a gentle reminder about the possibility of more upsets in the medal round. Even with Canada firing on all cylinders and now within reach of the gold, there are still three other motivated teams hoping to claim the prize.

With the semifinal games set to go Friday, The Canadian Press takes its best shot at predicting what’s going to happen:

<B>Canada-Slovakia<P>

Beacon: Timely scoring and Jaroslav Halak’s stellar goaltending have produced for Slovakia what were thought to be upset wins over Russia and Sweden, but it has become clear they are better than they were given credit for. It is also a last shot at glory for Slovakia’s old guard — Jozef Stumpel, Miroslav Satan, Richard Zednik, Zigmund Palffy, Michal Handzus, Pavol Demitra, Zdeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky, all well into their 30s.

But while they have played with purpose, and younger stars like Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik have been dangerous on attack, there remains a size and skill gap with the Canadians, who became in their last two games what they are — 21 of the NHL’s most talented, productive and best-paid players. They finally have all four lines firing now that the Ryan Getzlaf trio has joined the party, and with Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic now out of the tournament, they look like they can smell the gold medal. They were unstoppable against the Russians and, with their home crowd at Canada Hockey Place, likely will be again.

Prediction: Canada 5-1.

Johnston: Couldn’t have summed it up much better myself. While this sets up as a potential trap game for Canada, I think the close-call with Switzerland and loss to the U.S. during the preliminary round will provide fresh enough reminders of the dangers that come from any opponent. However, it’s hard to find much reason to think this Slovak team has another major upset in it — unless, perhaps, Halak has the game of his life.

The quarter-final victory over Sweden was the biggest since Slovakia’s gold-medal win at the 2002 IIHF World Hockey Championship and it was evident as players whooped and hollered afterwards. There’s bound to be an emotional letdown when they step into a frenzied atmosphere against a Canadian team that has hit its stride. My guess is they’ll be run over, just like Germany and Russia before them.

Prediction: Canada 7-2.

<B>United States-Finland<P>

Beacon: The Americans are undefeated, have the fastest team in the tournament and have had brilliant goaltending from Ryan Miller to go 4-0 thus far. But the Finns have goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, whose numbers have been just as good, and a team that makes up for a lack of scoring stars by playing a tight, defensive system. The Americans had trouble beating Switzerland. This is the Swiss with large extra doses of skill and experience.

Prediction: Finland 3-2.

Johnston: Bill, have you no taste for drama? There’s been a fairytale feel about this American team since it arrived in Vancouver and the only way for that story to end is with a trip to the gold-medal game. Plus, they’re the only undefeated team in the tournament. By contrast, the Finns have been fairly underwhelming — losing badly to Sweden in the preliminary round before squeaking out a quarter-final win over the Czech Republic. It’ll be close, but it’s going to be Brian Burke’s Americans in the final against Steve Yzerman’s Canadians.

Prediction: U.S. 3-1.

Organizations: Canadian Press, NHL, Canada Hockey Place

Geographic location: Canada, Sweden, VANCOUVER Slovakia Russia Czech Republic Switzerland U.S. Germany

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