Still without a top line and a clear-cut No. 1 goaltender, Team Canada is doing things the hard way at the Olympics.
The host team’s path got a whole lot tougher after Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the U.S. The Canadian men will now face Germany in a must-win playoff Tuesday to see who advances to the quarter-finals, where the powerhouse Russians are looming.
There are still more questions than answers when it comes to Canada’s hockey stars, who need to find a way to win four games in seven days to step on top of the podium. For starters: Is there enough time to get it together?
“We have no choice,” goalie Martin Brodeur said after a shaky outing against the Americans. “If not, we won’t be talking to you. We’re going to go out there and do everything we can to gel and get our game together, try to be successful.
“We’re here to do one thing, it’s to be the last one standing, and we’re still alive.”
Alive, but breathing heavily – just like the hockey fans in a nation with high hockey expectations.
The biggest debate raging around watercoolers across the country, not to mention coach Mike Babcock’s office, will be whether Brodeur should get another start. The veteran goaltender struggled while handling the puck against the U.S. and was also the victim of a couple bad bounces, perhaps opening the door for Roberto Luongo to assume the No. 1 job.
Recall that Pat Quinn faced a similarly tough decision eight years ago in Salt Lake City, when Brodeur ended up taking over from Curtis Joseph and leading the team to a gold medal. Babcock wanted to get another look at the loss before deciding his next course of action.
“What I’ll do is, just without emotion I’ll watch the game here tonight, and then make my decision after that,” he said. “Obviously, tonight was a night we’d like to have been better in that area. But we’ll have look at it and then we’ll make a decision.”
The only thing the opening week of the Olympic tournament has shown is just how wide open the competition is. Canada and Russia were once considered locks to meet in the gold-medal final, but only one of them will get a chance to play for a medal here.
Just as wide open is a spot on Sidney Crosby’s line with Rick Nash. A rotating cast of players has auditioned for the third position – starting with Mike Richards against the U.S. and ending with Jarome Iginla when Canada was pushing for the equalizer.
Even though Crosby scored a late goal with Nash and Iginla on his line, the trio might not be back together when the puck drops against the Germans.
“No, not necessarily,” said Babcock. “I thought Richards played well in the first period, but I’m just looking for more of a shooter in the third period. That’s why we went to (Iginla).”
The victory was a big one for the young Americans, who were wearing throwback jerseys to the 1960 Games when they last beat Canada in Olympic play. Brian Rafalski scored two goals and Ryan Miller made 42 saves to help their team come out on top of a wildly entertaining hockey game.
Chris Drury, Jamie Langenbrunner and Ryan Kesler had the other goals for the U.S. while Eric Staal, Dany Heatley and Crosby scored for Canada.
The Americans have embraced the underdog role here and are hoping to summon the spirit of the 1960 and 1980 teams that delivered unlikely golds in this tournament. However, coach Ron Wilson doesn’t think a victory over Canada signals that they’re the country to beat.
“In fairness, Canada probably outchanced us 2-1 most of the game and the goalie played excellent,” said Wilson. “I still think we’ve got a long way to go. There’s some great teams out there – Canada, I personally think is the best team (and) the Russians are right behind them with all the skill they have up front.”
Clearly, the Canadian players agree.
There was very little sense of panic as they filed off the ice with long faces and took questions from reporters. They believe it’s only a matter of time before everything starts clicking and their collective performance starts living up to their individual talent.
They certainly aren’t using the incredible pressure of expectations as a crutch.
“We don’t talk about it much,” said Brodeur. “We try to be in our own little world and do our things and try to not think about it. Just go out and try to perform. Again, we’re throwing 45 shots at these goalies and they’re making stops facing forwards, backwards, sideways. Eventually, if we keep doing these right things offensively, we’ll be more successful.”
The pre-game anticipation for the U.S.-Canada matchup was sky-high, with scalpers selling tickets at outrageous prices and downtown Vancouver literally at a standstill while people watched on screens around the city.
Canada Hockey Place was once again draped in red and white by a flag-waving sellout crowd that screamed until it was hoarse. The roar started well before the puck drop when gold medal moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau was interviewed on the scoreboard and continued until Kesler iced the game with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
One solution the Canadian team is considering is to start taking its cues from the crowd.
“It’s fun, you look around and everybody’s just having a blast, which is great,” said captain Scott Niedermayer. “I think maybe that’s what we need to do a little bit more on the ice – just enjoy it, have fun out there, soak it in and play as hard as we possibly can. We’ll get this thing going.”