The stage was set: Canada and the United States for the Olympic gold Sunday in the men's hockey final.
It was the meeting everyone wanted but certainly didn't anticipate, a border battle for all the glory in Vancouver. One was expected to be there on home ice from the beginning, the other wasn't. One took the hard road, the other paved itself a clear path to the big game.
In the end, though, nothing mattered but Sunday's one-game showdown for gold—not even the Americans' 5-3 victory in the preliminary round.
A month after the hockey countries faced off in an epic 6-5 overtime thriller in the World Junior Championship final—in which the U.S. prevailed on Canadian soil in Saskatoon—destiny happened to set up another potential classic in the Olympic final.
It certainly didn't disappoint.
The home crowd, waiting for something to cheer about after Canada's unforgivable seventh-place finish in Torino, witnessed one of the greatest games in the country's hockey history.
The golden boy, Sidney Crosby, scored the golden goal 7:40 into overtime and delivered the moment of a lifetime for his Canadian teammates and hockey fans watching across the country.
It was a monumental goal that will forever etch his name in Canada hockey lore—if Crosby wasn't already enough of a national hero.
His thrilling overtime winner, which sent Canada Hockey Place into absolute bedlam, is among the greatest. It's comparable to Paul Henderson's historic game-winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union, as well as Mario Lemieux's snip in the 1987 Canada Cup to beat the Soviets again, 6-5.
In 2010, the epic final didn't involve the Russians, who were beaten handily by Canada in quarterfinals, but Canada's opponent was an equally bitter rival, the U.S., which has emerged as another quality combatant on the world stage.
The two countries have built up quite the rivalry in the game of hockey in the last 10 years, especially after the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The gold medal game in Salt Lake—with the U.S. eager to win on home ice in front of its patriotic supporters—truly intensified the bitter rivalry in men's hockey that had been historically reserved for the Soviets' "Red Machine."
Russia remains a country to beat based on the ever-lasting Cold War history, exemplified by the intensity from both the players and fans during the quarterfinal battle in Vancouver.
But the golden showdown with the Americans rivaled the best of international games, which helped to produce record television audiences in both countries. The gold medal game marked the most watched television program in Canada, while the U.S. ratings increased 45 per cent from the 2002 final with 27.6 million watching on NBC.
Canada jumped out to the early lead. Unsung hero Jonathan Toews, who was an expected alternate before emerging as a major contributor, pounced on a Ryan Miller rebound 12 minutes into the game to score the all-important first goal in a sea of Red and White.
Corey Perry added to the advantage midway through the second period with another rebound goal, roofing it past Miller to put Canada in control with a 2-0 lead.
But the Americans played fearless in fighting back against the home country amidst the deafening crowd, starting with Ryan Kesler's deflection past his Vancouver Canucks teammate Roberto Luongo to pull the U.S. within a goal.
Then, when all hope was lost for the Americans, Zach Parise, who scored big goals throughout the tournament, popped in the game-tying goal with 24 seconds left to force overtime—the second time in Olympic history the gold medal game needed extra time.
While panic quickly spread throughout Canada Hockey Place, it set up a storybook ending with Canada's hockey hero, Crosby, producing an unforgettable moment that sent the entire country into complete euphoria—an overpowering feeling of nationalism few Canadian sports fans have experienced in their lifetime.
Ironically, with Canada's gold-medal victory over the U.S., it was the first time since the Americans' 1980 "Miracle on Ice" triumph over the Soviet Union that the host country captured the Olympic gold.
The epic finish Sunday also propelled Canada to its record-breaking performance at home in Vancouver, setting the Winter Olympic record for most gold medals in a single Games (14). Meanwhile, the Americans set the world on fire with a record 37 medals, closing the book on a jubilant Vancouver 2010 Games for both North American neighbors.
More importantly for hockey, the gold medal game has brought positive attention to the game and will only fuel the increasingly apparent golden rivalry between the bordering countries.