Hockey remains Canada's game
It all came down to Sidney Crosby's golden goal.
After months of anticipation and debate over team selections, Team Canada showed that, at least until the 2014 Sochi Games, the many fans holding up "Hockey is Canada's Game" signs over the past two weeks were right.
A 3-2 victory in Sunday's Olympic final over the United States, watched by more than 16 million across the country and sealed by Crosby's dramatic overtime goal, capped a seven-game journey marked by early setbacks and soaring highs.
And there was a turning point to it all.
Many groaned when the heavily favoured men's hockey team was beaten on home ice by the U.S. in the preliminary round, despite outshooting the opposition 45-23, but that defeat may have given them the recipe for gold.
As panic began to set in across Canada, coach Mike Babcock and his staff made adjustments to the lines and more precisely defined roles on the team — moves that stayed in place for the rest of the tournament.
Even a new sense of purpose — some call it fear of losing — set in among the team's collection of highly paid NHL stars.
"They were challenged in losing to the U.S.," general manager Steve Yzerman said when it was over. "They were playing in Canada and had to elevate their game and they did."
Team Canada went 4-0 from that point on — hammering Germany 8-2 in an elimination game and restoring confidence with a 7-3 pounding of Russia's own assembly of stars.
There was a scare in the semifinal when Slovakia, the surprise team of the Olympics, staged a third-period comeback and Canada had to hang on for a 3-2 win to get to the game probably every player wanted — a rematch with the U.S. in the final.
That's when Crosby, the 22-year-old who had already led Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup, stepped up to score the overtime goal.
"We weren't going to get discouraged if it didn't go our way right off the bat," said captain Scott Niedermayer. "Keep working at it, work hard in practice, believe in each other and get our team game the way it needs to be and we did it."
Along the way, Crosby reaffirmed his status as a big-moment player, 21-year-old Jonathan Toews was a revelation to fans still unaware of the Chicago centre's many gifts, and Duncan Keith emerged as Canada's premier defenceman.
Babcock admitted that the line combinations with which he ended up, were the ones he envisioned months before the tournament, lines that had been rethought going into the Games.
Crosby started with Rick Nash and Patrice Bergeron on his wings and ended up skating on a much more effective unit with Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal.
Big, bruising centre Ryan Getzlaf, playing through an ankle injury, stayed with Anaheim linemate Corey Perry and along the way picked up energetic left winger Brenden Morrow, who had been thought to be the team's extra forward. That role eventually fell to Bergeron, who nonetheless remained a key penalty killer and defensive-zone faceoff taker.
Toews, whose outstanding play gave him eight points and a tournament-best plus-9, found himself with Nash and Mike Richards on what was at first thought to be the fourth line but turned out second to none.
Only the San Jose Sharks' big and attack-minded line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau stayed together throughout the Games. They needed no adaptation time and were especially needed in early games.
On defence, Keith, hard-hitting Shea Weber and 20-year-old Drew Doughty gained in importance as the event went on, matching or even overtaking veterans Chris Pronger, Niedermayer and Dan Boyle in ice time. Brent Seabrook, Keith's defence partner in Chicago, became the seventh defenceman and played the least.
The other change was to take the starting job in goal away from 37-year-old Martin Brodeur, who was at a fourth Olympics and who had backstopped Canada to gold at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City.
Roberto Luongo, a Vancouver Canuck playing in his home rink, never looked entirely in control and let in one bad goal a game, but came up with enough saves to win. It was thought that he was given the start in Canada's first game, an 8-0 cakewalk over Norway, simply to please Vancouver fans, but Luongo ended the tournament with a 5-0 record.
'We'll never forget it'
By the final, Canada had jelled into a fearsome unit, with four balanced lines and a defence quick to move the puck up ice and find the forwards. They were also the event's biggest team and used their size to lay hammering hits on opponents.
They needed it for the final against the young, ultra-fast Americans and it produced a game of remarkable pace, where a physical price was paid for every inch of ice.
Canada took a 2-0 lead, the Americans came back to tie it with their goalie pulled in the final minute, Crosby came through in overtime and millions across the country leapt to their feet.
"We'll never forget it," said Niedermayer. "A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in front of your home fans in the sport that they love dearly and to be able to give back to them. They love the game and they deserved it."
It was probably a last Olympics for veterans like Niedermayer, Pronger and Iginla, but if the NHL and its players agree to go to Russia in 2014, many of this same team will be back to defend their gold — including Crosby, Toews, Keith, Doughty, Weber, Richards, Getzlaf, Nash and Staal.
They should be joined by the new crop of youngsters coming up, like Tampa Bay centre Steven Stamkos and New York Islanders winger John Tavares.
Then a new wave of debate and anxiety can begin.