VANCOUVER — A superior start led to a festive finish for the triumphant Canadian men's hockey team in its critical Olympic quarter-final match against Russia on Wednesday.
The Canadian players wowed every hockey fan from sea-to-sea-to-sea with a near-perfect performance for a stunning 7-3 victory against Alexander Ovechkin and Russia amid a wild atmosphere in Vancouver's Canada Hockey Place.
What a turnabout after all the hand-wringing earlier this week following a 5-3 loss to the United States in the final game of the preliminary round. Now Canada has a spot in the semifinals and will play Slovakia on Friday.
"I don't think many people believed me after the U.S. game, when I said that we were getting better," Canadian coach Mike Babcock said after the victory over Russia.
It's hard to imagine the Canadians can play much better than they did against Russia. They jumped all over their opponents immediately after the opening faceoff, grabbed an early lead and never looked back.
The dangerous Ovechkin was smothered at every opportunity. He exited with only three shots on goal and a plus-minus of –2.
"I know there will be some [reporters] back home who will crucify us and put tons of dirt on us, but those people don't know anything about hockey," Ovechkin told the Russian media.
"Don't judge our team by one game. We are still strong. … They were simply better tuned than we were. We are practically at the same level, but today they had more focus."
The Canadian focus was to control the puck as much as possible down low in the Russian end. They played a smart, safe game along the boards and did little to allow the skilled Russians to get any flow in their game.
"That was our game plan — to play in their end," said Canadian defenceman Dan Boyle, who scored a power-play goal and set up Ryan Getzlaf for the opening goal, just two minutes and 21 seconds in.
"Those guys are really good when they have the puck on their sticks. So what do you do? You take it away from them and keep it down low in their end. The whole team did a great job," Boyle said.
It's difficult to single out one Canadian player because it was such a complete effort from top-to-bottom. But defenceman Shea Weber was magnificent in helping to shut down Ovechkin, a matchup that Babcock was able to get even though the Russians had last change.
The forward line of Jonathan Toews, Rick Nash and Mike Richards also did a wonderful job to limit Ovechkin and his linemates, Alexander Semin and Evgeni Malkin.
"I think we came out early and got them on their heels," Weber said. "We played our game and pushed forward."
Nobody could have predicted the lopsided result, which saw Canada lead 4-1 after the first period and 7-3 following 40 minutes. But you could tell by the body language of the Canadians after their solid effort against Germany on Tuesday that their confidence and scoring touch had returned.
"I think we did a great job using our speed, and forcing turnovers. We were smart, we played well defensively," Canada's Sidney Crosby said. "But when we got those opportunities, we made some nice plays. Really, it was an all-around solid game for everybody."
Fuelled by fans
According to the Canadian players, the sea of red among the 17,740 rabid fans in Canada Hockey Place, which included gold-medallist figure skaters Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, played a big role in Canada's strong start.
''We felt like we had a lot of jump," Eric Staal said. "We were at the boiling point as soon as that puck dropped to start the game. We were really firing with a lot of energy and the atmosphere was unbelievable and that adds to it. It was a lot of fun out there.''
After the Getzlaf and Boyle goals, Nash made it 3-0 on a breakaway, thanks to a Malkin turnover at the Canadian blue-line. Russia got on the board with a screen shot from defenceman Dmitri Kalinin, but Canada erased any momentum swing with a gritty Brenden Morrow goal near the end of the first period.
After Corey Perry, with his first of two goals, and Weber scored early in the second period for a 6-1 lead, Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov was lifted for backup Ilya Bryzgalov.
Russians Maxim Afinogenov and Sergei Gonchar, on the power play, sandwiched goals around Perry's second to complete the scoring.
"Really simple," Bryzgalov replied when asked why Russia lost. "We lost all the battles. We turned the puck over too much. We lost every aspect of the game. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. We lost the battles around the walls."
And how will the defeat be received back in Russia? Brygalov said, "Same thing like if it was the Canadians. It's a disaster. End of the world."