VANCOUVER, B.C. - With the stage seemingly set for a third straight Canada-U.S. gold medal hockey showdown at the Vancouver Winter Games, the host country suddenly fell victim to a miracle on ice.
Japan, who had lost 11 straight games to Canada heading into Thursday's Paralympic semifinal, rallied from an early deficit and stunned the Canadians 3-1 to advance to the gold-medal game.
The upstart Japanese will face the Americans, who beat Norway 3-0 in the late semifinal.
With the defeat, Canada will have to play the Norwegians for bronze.
"Canada would beat us if we played them 1,000 times, we're going to lose 999," said Japanese head coach Kojin Nakakita. "But not this one."
The Canadians were looking to complete the country's gold medal sweep after the men and women's Olympic hockey teams won their respective titles last month.
But the sledge team looked tense out of the gate, as players misfired on routine passes, shot wide on glorious chances, and took bad penalties.
The game was tied 1-1 late in the third when Canada got caught pushing for the winning goal.
Japan broke away on a 3-on-1 and Daisuke Uehara fired a shot past sprawling Canadian goaltender Paul Rosen to make it 2-1 Japan with just 73 seconds to play.
Greg Westlake, the tournament's leading scorer, then misfired on a pass to the point with 16 seconds to go, putting the puck in his own net and sealing his team's fate.
Defenceman Adam Dixon, who at age 20 was competing in his first Paralympics, approached reporters while fighting back tears and said his team might have been guilty of looking too far ahead.
"We said we can't look past Japan and maybe we were focused on the game we're not in," he said. "A lot of guys worked hard after Torino, stayed around for four years, worked hard and made sacrifices.
"It's tough. It's tough to swallow."
Captain Jean Labonte, who at age 40 might well have played his last Paralympic game, also battled tears as he spoke afterwards.
"We had a lot of chances and we had them pinned down in their end quite a few times during the game and we couldn't capitalize," said Labonte, who helped Canada win gold at the 2006 Paralympics. "Hats off to them."
Canadian coach Jeff Snyder said focus wasn't his team's problem Thursday. But just as his players were nervous in their first round-robin game, barely beating an Italian team seemingly not at their level, Snyder said they were gripping their sticks far too tight against Japan.
"I thought we had some real good chances early in the game and didn't get them buried," he said. "And I think the longer the game went the more confidence Japan had and I thought Japan played a great game."
Marc Dorion gave Canada a 1-0 lead with just over five minutes remaining in the first. He was stopped on his first two whacks from just outside the crease by Japanese goaltender Mitsuru Nagase but stuck with it and his third attempt trickled over the goal-line.
But Canada still led by one after the period, despite putting 10 shots on goal against Nagase and carrying the play.
Two minor penalties in the first didn't help the Canadians' cause, and they were in the box three more times in the second.
Todd Nicholson had just left the penalty box in the second when he fired a pass right up the middle of the ice that was picked off by Japan's Takayuki Endo. Endo came in all alone and beat Rosen to the glove-side to make it 1-1.
Canada quickly had an opportunity to reclaim the lead when Westlake sent Brad Bowden in all alone on Nagase. Bowden deked to the forehand and snapped the puck high, hitting Nagase in the mask.
The teams remained tied heading into the third when Jeremy Booker had a great chance for Canada 4 1/2 minutes in.
After a Japanese defender mishandled the puck in his own end, Booker got in on a partial breakaway but was stopped by a sprawling Nagase.
Endo was given credit for the empty-net goal in the third but it was Nagase who emerged the hero after his 19-save performance.
"I just tried to keep very calm, not very upset, I didn't think. I was just focusing on each puck," said Nagase, who pumped his fists in the air and cried after the win. "I've been playing for 15 years.
"Always, we finished fifth the last three Paralympics."
Nagase hopes his country's first win over Canada since the 2002 Paralympics gets his team some media coverage back home.
"This is bigger. It's in a hockey country," he said.
Rosen made eight saves and said he still plans to hang up his sweater after the team's final game in Vancouver.
Tournament organizers said 5,039 tickets were sold for Thursday's game, though large sections of the venue at the University of British Columbia sat empty.
Those who did turn out to cheer the host country were boisterous though, drowning out the few dozen Japanese fans in attendance.
In Thursday's other semifinal, the Americans maintained their role as the class of the tournament, posting their fourth straight shutout.
Greg Shaw, Taylor Chace and Joe Howard had goals for the U.S., while Steve Cash turned away all 12 shots he faced.
"We came out a little nervous tonight, but fought through it," said American head coach Ray Maluta. "Our guys got better as the game went on, and we've put ourselves exactly where we wanted to be: the gold-medal game."