By Cameron French
TORONTO, Feb 21 (Reuters) - There may not have been an Olympic medal on the line, but Canadians celebrated Friday's semifinal hockey win versus the United States as if the weight of the world were off their backs.
One day after the Canadian women's hockey team stormed back from a 2-0 deficit versus its U.S. rival to win Olympic gold, Canada beat the men's team 1-0 in front of a packed Bolshoy Ice Dome, shutting out a team that had scored 20 goals in its first four games in the Olympic tournament.
At Toronto's downtown Real Sports Bar & Grill, a boisterous crowd chanted "Go, Canada, Go!" and pounded tables as Canada went ahead 1-0 on a second-period goal by Jamie Benn, and then held it against a U.S. squad stacked with National Hockey League all-stars.
The win means Canada will get the chance to defend its hockey gold from the 2010 Vancouver games on Sunday versus Sweden, which topped Finland 2-1 in the other semifinal on Friday. The U.S. will play Finland in the bronze medal game.
"This is a lot like a gold medal game. Sweden is not going to be a pushover, but I've got to tell you, I think this is huge. This is Canada's game, this is awesome," said stockbroker Brian Jones, 39, who watched the game with clients.
The game even drew a smiling Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to the bar, which sits next to the home arena of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ford, who is running for re-election after a crack-smoking scandal last year landed him in international headlines, handed out campaign magnets and greeted well-wishers.
The victory saves Canadians, temporarily at least, from the kind of soul-searching that typically follows a hockey loss in a major international tournament.
With either a gold or silver guaranteed in hockey, Canada will finish the Sochi games with at least 25 medals, with a chance to equal or beat the country's 26-medal performance from Vancouver.
But for hockey-mad Canadians, for whom the selection process for the Olympic hockey team has been a national story over the last several months, not all medals are created equal, and a loss to their biggest rival would have left a lasting wound.
"It's important that we beat the Americans, that's all. I don't have anything against the Americans, but it's the only rivalry that matters," said Charmaine Tsoutsas, a 49-year-old receptionist crowded with about a hundred others in front of a giant TV screen in the lobby of the 72-floor First Canadian Place bank tower in Toronto.
Tsoutsas was one of many office workers taking long lunches to watch the game.
The game, a rematch of the 2010 hockey final, pitted a Canadian team that had so far struggled to score in this tournament against a U.S. team that looked primed to avenge its 2010 loss.
"This feels like the gold medal game... just because it's the Americans. It matters more than the medals," said Tsoutsas. (Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins and Alastair Sharp in Toronto; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Lisa Shumaker)