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It's win-or-bust for Team USA against Team Canada

TORONTO -- This game was circled on the calendar long before the first puck was even dropped for the World Cup of Hockey. It's Team USA vs. Team Canada in a group play showdown Tuesday in Air Canada Centre (8 p.m., ESPN).

But instead of perhaps being a preview for a meeting in the best-of-3 final, the game has taken on a completely different tenor for Team USA. Coach John Tortorella called it "a championship game" after practice here Sunday and reiterated Monday that his team is ready for the challenge to keep its hopes alive in the wake of Saturday's 3-0 upset loss to Team Europe.

The reality is a stark one for Team USA: By virtue of Team Europe's overtime win over the Czech Repbulic on Monday afternoon, a loss to Canada will render moot its group play finale Thursday against the Czechs. There will be no chance for the Americans to advance to the semifinals.

"We're playing against a good team, a really good team," Tortorella said after practice in Ricoh Coliseum. "I can't wait and I think our players can't wait for this game to start. It's going to be a blast to come in there. Everybody wants us knocked out. Let's just play. We've practiced enough. We've talked enough. We've gone through all that process. Let's play the damn game."

Team USA spent Tuesday trying to keep a small focus on the game against Canada, and not look at the big picture that includes the fact this could be the final real shot at international glory for several players on the roster.

"You're peeling back so many layers of the onion here," Boston Bruins center David Backes, 32, said when that point was brought up. "We have to think of it as a 60-minute hockey game and know we're a good group of players. We keep our focus on one shift, one period, one game at a time. If we start trying to carry the weight of a generation of hockey players or defining moments or ends of tournaments, I think that's starts to paralyze you and weigh on the team too."

As is his custom, Tortorella refused to discuss his lineup after practice. It's expected that Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick will remain in goal and Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien, a surprise healthy scratch Saturday, will return to the lineup in place of Columbus' Jack Johnson.

"It's a Game Seven for us," said center Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers. "I've been through a couple. They're exciting and nervewracking but the biggest thing is you can't let the nerves get the best of you, can't let the emotions get the best of you."

The most interesting development for Team USA since the opening dud was Tortorella's promotion of Detroit's Justin Abdelkader to a line with Stepan and Chicago's Patrick Kane. The coach said Abdelkader, the poster boy for critics of this team who say it was chosen too much on grit and not enough on talent, has deserved his spot.

Tortorella also said he's going to push the envelope with Kane and try to get the South Buffalo native into the game more than he did Saturday. USA Hockey officials did not make Kane available to the media Monday.

"I'm going to bounce him around," Tortorella said. "It's a tough tournament to get your guys the ice time they're used to. I've got to pick certain guys in my lineup that I'm going to find ice time for them no matter what, and Kane is one of those guys.

"This game here. I'm not wasting much time. Guys aren't ready to play and they aren't doing anything, it's going to be a pretty short bench. We've got to win the game so we're going to make decisions very quickly in a sprint mode."

A big subplot to the game figures to be the roaring crowd in the ACC, which will pulse with excitement for Canada as well as taunts for the wounded Americans.

"I dont know if that has anything to do with the one loss but the reality is we've been looking forward to this game as a measuring stick," Backes said. "The result that happened from the first game is that it's also for our lives now.

"You can have all the senationalized stories you want but it's 60 minutes, 20 on 20 and our group against theirs. We have to be ready for anything that comes our way -- adversity, success, power plays, penalty kills, leads, deficits -- and make sure we have the response at the right moment to bring to the game. We can't hold anything back. This is all the chips on the table for our team."

Tortorella agreed.

"I'm talking about playing in this city here, playing in that building against Team Canada and it's a great spot for the Americans to be in that type of situation, that type of atmosphere," he said. "If you can't get motivated to do your best in this type of situation with the environment that's going to be there Tuesday night, then we've got the wrong guy. I don't think we've got the wrong guys."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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