Canada vs. U.S. a fitting Games finale

By Steve Keating

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada and the United States are set to bring the curtain down on the Vancouver Winter Games with an Olympic showstopper in the men's ice hockey final on Sunday.

The fireworks will start early on the final day as Canada and the U.S. go toe-to-toe for the last gold of the Games which could also determine which nation finishes top the medal table.

But for Canadians, who have been waiting for this day since Vancouver was awarded the Games, there is only one medal that matters -- men's ice hockey gold.

A Canada-U.S. preliminary-round clash pulled in a record television audience of over 10 million and that mark is expected to be smashed as Canadians from Newfoundland to Victoria gather for the biggest day of the Olympics for the hockey-mad country.

The game is also expected to be a ratings blockbuster for NBC who paid billions for the U.S. television rights and hope to cash in with the dream final they craved.

It will mark the second time in three Olympics Canada and the U.S. have played for gold and both teams come into the contest with grudges to settle.

Canada beat the U.S. on their home ice at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games to end a 50-year gold medal drought.

But the Americans gave the hosts a taste of what it feels like to be humbled at home, handing them a preliminary round loss last Sunday that sent the Great White North into gloom.

PLAY DESPERATE

"The past doesn't matter," Canadian forward Sidney Crosby told reporters after going through a final practice on Saturday. "It doesn't matter who's favored, who's the underdog.

"It makes absolutely no difference right now.

"You go out there, you play desperate, you leave it all out there and let the result take care of itself.

"It's why you play, for these opportunities."

While Team Canada took their fans on a gut-churning roller-coaster ride to the final by surviving a shootout win over Switzerland, a loss to the U.S. and a heart-stopping semi-final victory over Slovakia, the unbeaten Americans enjoyed a smoother trip.

The young American squad are on course to join the 1960 Squaw Valley and 1980 Lake Placid Miracle on Ice teams as Olympic champions but they are have flown under the radar through the competition.

"We were booked to fly out tomorrow (Sunday) morning, we won't be making that flight," said U.S. defenseman David Backes. "We're happy to rebook all our flights out."

U.S. netminder Ryan Miller has been the single biggest reason the Americans have reached the final.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)