SALT LAKE CITY - Near the conclusion of this dreary game, a group of young men wearing Canadian hockey jerseys rose to their feet from their seats near the Belarus net and added a little noise to the arena by singing their country's national anthem. They were celebrating Canada's 7-1 victory over Belarus in a men's hockey semifinal, and also a berth in the gold-medal game tomorrow against the United States.
Although yesterday's game was the most one-sided and least entertaining of the medal round, Canadians had much to sing and cheer about at the E Center rink. On Thursday, their women's hockey team beat the United States, 3-2, for the gold medal. The Canadian men, who will be playing in the gold-medal game for the first time since 1994, hope to win the gold for the first time in 50 years.
"I don't know if we'll win Sunday, but we're there," Canada coach Pat Quinn said. "We plan on it."
After starting the tournament in ragged fashion with a 1-1-1 record in the previous round, the Canadians have gradually improved while getting a break from the tournament draw. Because they tied the Czech Republic, the Canadians finished third in their grouping and played Finland in the quarterfinals instead of the much stronger Russian team. The Canadians beat Finland, 2-1. And because Belarus upset Sweden, 4-3, in the quarterfinals, the Canadian opponent yesterday was the weakest contender remaining. "Their tank was pretty dry today," Canada's Brendan Shanahan said of Belarus.
Steve Yzerman, Eric Brewer, Scott Niedermayer, Paul Kariya, Simon Gagne, Eric Lindros and Jarome Iginla scored for Canada. Ruslan Salei, the only NHL player on the Belarus roster, scored at 13:24 of the first period to tie the score, briefly, at 1-1. But the Canadians went ahead to stay at 17:25 on Brewer's goal off Yzerman's setup from behind the net. They held the edge in shots, 51-14, dominated play territorially, and wore down Belarus with hard checking and superior speed.
Canada's best line continued to be Yzerman, Kariya and Mario Lemieux. Lemieux, the captain of the team, had two assists and said afterward that playing for the gold medal "is something we can cherish for a long time," if the team is successful.
"It means a lot," Lemieux said. "It means a whole lot to the whole country. We're proud Canadians."
Martin Brodeur made 13 saves for Canada, missing only Salei's long shot when it bounced off his glove. Lindros played the full game yesterday after missing the third period in Wednesday's 2-1 win over Finland. He was aggressive throughout, and took penalties for slashing and unsportsmanlike conduct late for altercations with Vladimir Tsyplakov, who was also penalized.
Because Belarus has played all the top teams, Salei was asked which opponent he thought was the strongest. "I thought Sweden was the best," said Salei, who plays for Anaheim. "I guess they weren't. I guess they're pretty much the same. It's all about one day."
For the gold
Matchup: United States vs. Canada
What: Men's hockey gold-medal game
Where: E Center, West Valley City, Utah
When: Tomorrow, 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4