Team Canada squeaks into gold-medal game
Canadian Olympic men’s hockey coach Mike Babcock joked after his team’s narrow escape in the semifinals that the United States are the favourites in the gold-medal final between the North American rivals on Sunday.
This was a potshot at U.S. general manager Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson. The talkative twosome has been saying for months now that nobody would bet on their team to win gold in Vancouver because teams like Canada and Russia were favoured.
But after Canada had to hang on for dear life to beat Slovakia 3-2 for a spot in the final, and the U.S. had an easy time with Finland in their semifinal match, how can the Americans not be considered the better team right now?
"They are rolling … they must be the favourites," Babcock said with a cunning smile.
Well, the way U.S. goalie Ryan Miller has played and the way Roberto Luongo allowed Slovakia to gain life in the third period, the U.S. should, at least, be the more confident group.
Canada was cruising 3-0 against Slovakia in the third period. The crowd of 17,779 at Canada Hockey Place began to chant, "We want USA, we want USA," and "We want gold, we want gold."
But then Slovak defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky threw a backhand from a bad angle. Luongo was not hugging the post. The puck bounded off his left pad, off the post and into the goal with eight minutes and 25 seconds remaining in the third period.
"When we got scored on it was amazing how we couldn’t make a pass or a play," Babcock said.
Slovak centre Michal Handzus further tightened the collective collar of the Canadian team and fans, when he popped in a rebound with 4:53 left on the clock. This made for a frantic finish.
The young Canadian defence pair of Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith was caught on the ice for the final 1:44. Just after Marian Hossa whiffed on a chance from the slot, his Slovak linemate Pavol Demitra found himself alone in front of his Vancouver Canucks teammate Luongo in the dying seconds.
Luongo was fortunate to get his glove on the glorious last-second chance from Demitra.
"I thought for sure it was going to go in," Demitra said. "I hit it hard and I think I hit his glove or something. I couldn’t believe it. He’s a great goalie."
'They threw everything at us'
Luongo confirmed that Demitra’s shot did indeed hit his glove.
"I got a piece of it," Luongo said.
"That was the most fun I’ve ever had. They threw everything at us, pucks, bodies. The Slovaks are a great team and they deserved to be here."
Canada snatched a 2-0 lead after the first period and a 3-0 advantage following 40 minutes, and had outshot the Slovaks 21-9 at that point. The Canadians were disciplined in their play and usually had a third forward high in the offensive zone to quell any transition breaks going the other way.
Canada scored twice in the second-half of the first period on similar goals from Patrick Marleau and Brenden Morrow 1:47 apart.
Marleau deflected a drifter from defenceman Shea Weber and Chris Pronger directed a shot on goal that was tipped by Morrow and past Slovakia goalie Jaroslav Halak. The Canadians built a three-goal head start with a Ryan Getzlaf power-play goal late in the second period.
"I don’t know what it was," Canadian forward Mike Richards said. "I don’t know if we were sitting back a bit."
With Canada and the United States meeting in the gold-medal final on Sunday afternoon (noon PT, 3 p.m. ET), it’s a rematch of eight years ago when Canada upended the United States 5-2 in Salt Lake City for its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years.
The undefeated U.S. has been the only team to beat Canada in Vancouver, a 5-3 loss last Sunday.
Babcock vowed that his players will make it much more difficult on Miller, getting more traffic in front of the U.S. netminder and more deflections.
"We were too easy on Miller last time," Babcock said. "We won’t be next time."
"We’re going to have to tighten up defensively," Canadian centre Ryan Getzlaf added. "They skated around us pretty hard [last Sunday]."