GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- They waited nearly a full year for this opportunity. It has finally arrived.
After a long, long wait, Ryan Getzlaf, Dion Phaneuf and the nine other Team Canada returnees can make amends for the major disappointment of last year's World Junior Hockey Championship.
Thanks to yet another dominating performance yesterday, the Canadians are one victory away from claiming a gold medal. It would make up for the one lost a year ago to the U.S. when Canada blew a 3-1 third-period lead in spectacular fashion to fall 4-3.
And the first since 1997.
"The boys, we are ready to go," stated Getzlaf, the Calgary Hitmen captain, immediately after Canada dispatched the Czech Republic 3-1. "This is why we came and where we want to be is where we are right now. We'll prepare for that game right now."
Canada will face Russia in its fourth consecutive gold-medal game tomorrow night. The Czechs face the U.S. in the battle for bronze.
For 60 minutes, the Canadians smothered and stifled the Czech attackers, holding them to only one legitimate scoring chance and a paltry 11 shots on goal.
Sure, it wasn't as flashy -- certainly not as entertaining -- as the previous Canadian outings but it definitely showed just how dominant Canada's defence corps is.
"We've talked since Day One about being a mentally strong team and, no matter if you're up a goal or down a goal, just stay to the gameplan, not lose our focus, pay attention to detail and do things correctly," Canadian head coach Brent Sutter said.
"Even when they made it 3-1, we just continued to stay with it. We only gave up 11 shots and one quality scoring chance.
"We played a very sound game."
Not that anyone expected the Czechs to try run-and-gun hockey against the Canadians but they were ultra-conservative.
"This team was probably the grittiest we've played yet, in terms of battling and stuff like that," said forward Andrew Ladd, also a member of the Calgary Hitmen.
"If you look at the other games, once we got up, they bowed out and didn't play they way they could. This team kept it going the whole game and gave us a run."
The difference was that Canada did generate shots -- 42, to be exact -- and Jeff Carter, Nigel Dawes and Patrice Bergeron managed to each put one past Marek Schwarz.
The Czechs threw a total of four shots on net in the first two periods and didn't have a legitimate scoring chance until Rostislav Olesz beat Jeff Glass early in the third period to make it 3-1.
"We started with too much respect against this team and too much respect is never good," said Czech captain Petr Vrana.
Another benefit for the Canadians heading into the final is they finally faced some adversity, after winning four preliminary-round games by a combined score of 32-5.
"It'll help. Any time you're up against a challenge, it helps build character and stuff," Getzlaf agreed.
"That's where it's gonna be from here on out."
If not even harder.
"There's still one more big step for us to take," Phaneuf said, "and we know what we have to do to be successful.
"We're one step closer and need a very good effort to do that and be successful."
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WORLD JUNIOR HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF SCHEDULE
Slovakia 2 Belarus 1
Canada 3 Czech Republic 1
Russia 7 U.S. 2
Belarus vs. Germany, 11 a.m.
Switzerland vs. Slovakia, 2:30 p.m.
Finland vs. Sweden, 6:30 p.m.
Czech Rep. vs. U.S., 2:08 p.m. (TSN)
Canada vs. Russia, 6:08 p.m. (TSN)