By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The panic that gripped Canada a few days ago swung to giddy optimism on Thursday as the men's ice hockey team's path to the Olympic gold suddenly looked a lot less daunting.
After Sunday's loss to the United States forced Canada into a qualification game against Germany, the hockey mad nation was facing a bumpy ride with top ranked Russia and reigning Olympic champions Sweden blocking their way to the gold medal final.
But in a classic example of how quickly fortune and momentum can swing in a compact Olympic tournament, the only team between Canada on Thursday and a place in Sunday's gold medal final is ninth ranked Slovakia.
While Canada will not take the giant killers from Slovakia lightly, there was little doubt a semi-final date on Friday with the Slovakians held more appeal than a showdown with the always tough Swedes.
"I don't think you can take anyone for granted at this point, beating a team like Sweden like they did, as a team they play so well," Team Canada forward Sidney Crosby told reporters. "I have a lot of respect for them and know it is going to be our biggest test yet."
The Slovakians have been the surprise package of the Olympic tournament.
They signaled their medal ambitions during the preliminary round with an upset win over Russia and then delivered the shock of the tournament by knocking off reigning champions Sweden in a quarter-final thriller.
Taking the scalp of the surging Canadians, however, could present the biggest challenge yet with the hosts closing in on the gold medal that means more to the country than any other.
After a slow start to the competition, Canada looks to have found its stride after romping past Germany 8-2 then stomping archrival Russia 7-3 in games earlier this week.
"The most important thing is going to be the first 20 minutes of the game because they are going to come out hard and everyone knows that," said Slovakian forward Marian Gaborik.
"Right now they are the best team out there ... again we're underdogs."
The United States play Finland in the first semi-final on Friday, followed shortly after by Canada and Slovakia.
The matchups leave open the possibility of a mouth-watering grudge match between the United States and Canada for the last gold medal of the Vancouver Games to be handed out on Sunday.
"We're both not there yet," said Crosby. "That's the bottom line. You can say a lot of what ifs, there are so many different scenarios.
"But we know we've got a tough one tomorrow and we're just worrying about that."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)