With the hopes of a proud nation squarely on their shoulders, Team Canada delivered.
The Canadians finally ended an agonizing 50-year wait to win the Olympic gold medal in their national sport, beating the United States as Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic each scored twice in a historic 5-2 victory Sunday.
"We felt all along the expectations of all the people in Canada," Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur said. "It's always fun to be part of a great team."
The loss ended U.S. coach Herb Brooks' quest to lead a second gold-medal winning team 22 years after the famous "Miracle on Ice" with a group of college players.
This time, with the best of the NHL playing each other, the United States lost for the first time in 70 years on Olympic home ice.
"We don't have anything to feel bad about," said U.S. defenseman Phil Housley, who scored what turned out to be the winning goal in the 3-2 semifinal victory over Russia. "These memories are something I will carry with me for a long time."
Paul Kariya and Iginla scored less than four minutes apart in the first period as Canada seized the lead after falling behind 1-0. The Canadians gave it back shortly after they failed to score with a lengthy two-man advantage, then regained the lead on Sakic's goal late in the period.
Iginla redirected Steve Yzerman's shot from the left point with just under four minutes left in the game to make it 4-2.
It sealed what is perhaps Canada's biggest victory in any sport and caused Wayne Gretzky, the team's executive director, to jump up wildly in his private box, pumping his fists and waving his arms.
Remarkably, Canada's gold came 50 years to the day an amateur team called the Edmonton Waterloo Mercurys won the hockey-crazy nation's last Olympic gold.
"You don't know what it's like to have a piano on your back. No other team had more pressure than ours," defenseman Al MacInnis said. "Everybody in Canada was watching with the same intensity that we played the game with. It's amazing the way a sport can bring the country together."
The American loss came despite goals by Tony Amonte and Brian Rafalski, and was the first for the United States in 25 Olympic games (21-1-3) on U.S. ice since a 2-1 loss to Canada in 1932. Brooks had been 10-0-2 in Olympic games.
There seemed to be some symmetry in this game.
Just as it did in its 4-2 victory over Finland for the gold in Lake Placid in 1980, the United States trailed by a goal going into the third period.
This time, though, the Americans had no answer for Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur, not even the starter when the tournament began. He turned aside 31 shots to outduel Mike Richter, who made the most spectacular saves but could not halt a succession of Canadian odd-man rushes in the first two periods.
Canada's pursuit of the gold medal mesmerized Canadians, with the CBC predicting the Sunday afternoon game would draw the largest TV audience in the nation's history — not just for sports, but or any event.
The gold also was redemption for Gretzky. He drew heavy criticism when Team Canada was routed 5-2 in its Olympic opener by Sweden, then barely beat Germany before coasting into the gold-medal game against weak opposition after Belarus upset Sweden.
No matter. It was exactly the kind of riveting, intense game the NHL was hoping for when it sent its players to the Olympics for the first time four years ago.
There were unexpected swings in momentum, excellent goaltending and a noisy, pro-American crowd that drowned out the pockets of Canadian fans.
That is, until the end, after Sakic's second goal ignited a wave of "O Canada" singing.
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