It's now or never

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- The world hockey championship is about to move into the phase Canadians like best.

It's the backs-against-the wall, no-tomorrow, seventh-game phase. Win and you move on. Lose and you go home.

"We're going to be facing elimination now," defenceman Dan Boyle said. "It's in our Canadian blood. We rise to the occasion. We're very proud players. Now that were facing elimination, I think our true colours are going to show."

There is, however, a catch. The level of play in the upper echelons of international hockey is improving steadily and today's quarter-final opponent, Slovakia, is a potent team.

There's no doubt Canada will elevate its level of play over what was produced in the opening round, but even so, a win today is far from automatic. Slovakia is not only stocked with National Hockey League players, it has players of quality.

Defenceman Zdeno Chara was one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy voting last year. Marian Gaborik is one of the best young players in the game. Marian Hossa, Jozef Stumpel, Miroslav Satan, Zigmund Palffy, Pavol Demitra and Michael Handzus all are long-term veterans of significant stature.

If Canada is to live up to its reputation of coming through in the must-win games, it will have to produce a focused, intelligent game that employs Canadian attributes to the fullest.

It must make sure that as much as possible, the teams are always at full strength -- or that Canada has the advantage.

But keeping the game at five-on-five would also require a verdict in regulation time. Under the International Ice Hockey Federation format, a tied game at this stage of the tournament progresses to a 20-minute four-on-four overtime, a circumstance that would be ideal for the Slovaks.

If the game remains tied, the shootout comes into play.

Either way, although Canada has plenty of high-skilled snipers of its own, to allow this game to be decided on the basis of offence would be playing right into the Slovaks' hands.

The Canadians strongly indicated that there will be more hitting today than there has been in any of the earlier games.

"We don't want to give them a lot of room," Canadian coach Marc Habscheid said. "We want to eliminate time and space, and (ensure we) are on the proper side of the puck so they have to work through some players and don't have a lot of free ice."

Even though there will be more hitting, it mostly will take place in specific areas -- behind the net and in the neutral zone. Once the Slovaks are in the Canadian end, they'll be allowed to stay on the periphery. From that range, they can't do much damage.

The Canadians won't come right out and say it, but the Slovak weakness they most want to exploit is the goaltending.

Jan Lasak had a brief stint with the Nashville Predators, but didn't like playing in the minors and returned to Europe.

Like so many European goalies, he can have spectacular stretches, but can also have sudden lapses. The Canadians want to pepper him with shots and set up camp on his doorstep.

And the Canadians intend to win on the desire front as well.

As forward Brendan Morrison said, "Nobody in Canada wants it more than the guys in that room. We want to win. That's what we came over for."


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