VANCOUVER, B.C. – Sidney Crosby saved the day, and a country heaved a sigh of relief.
But there is still work to do if Team Canada is to claim the Olympic gold medal the hometown fans are yearning for.
The star centre, controversially left off an ill-fated Canadian team as an 18-year-old four years ago in Turin, scored on his second attempt in the shootout to help his team eke out a 3-2 victory over Switzerland on Thursday at the Vancouver Games.
It was a game that evoked scary memories of the Swiss upset win in Turin. And while Canada played with plenty of energy, cohesion has yet to set in among its collection of highly paid NHL stars.
It nearly cost them another embarrassing setback against the Swiss, a team with just two NHL players – captain Mark Streit and star goalie Jonas Hiller.
“We can get better and that’s what this tournament is about – being at your best at the right time,” said captain Scott Niedermayer. “They (Switzerland) skated very well and that’s what gave us most of our troubles.
“We didn’t respond to that very well. We didn’t move our feet. When we did, we had some good shots down in their end.”
It had not been a stellar game for Crosby, but he came through when the team needed him most.
“We wanted a better result in regulation, but we found a way,” said Crosby, the 22-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins captain who carries much of the weight of expectations on Canada’s hockey team.
The Canadian players looked still to be adjusting to one another, which is not unusual for a team thrown together in mid-season that went into the game with two practices and one game under its belt.
Coach Mike Babcock used the San Jose Sharks line of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton liberally because it had the best chemistry, but Crosby and left winger Rick Nash struggled to get chances playing with a variety of right wingers.
Jarome Iginla, who had a hat trick in an easy 8-0 win over Norway to open the Olympics, was bumped back to the fourth line. Defenceman Brent Seabrook spent much of the game on the bench. Top-scoring forwards like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Eric Staal couldn’t find the net.
But there are growing pains at every Olympics for Canada, who were beaten 5-2 by Sweden in their first game at the 2002 Olympics, when they won gold.
“Every championship I’ve been involved with, you need to go through adversity and this was it,” said Babcock. “As a group we weren’t as good as we’re capable of being.
“It’s a huge step for our team in understanding how hard it’s going to be and how well we have to play.”
Canada went up 2-0 on goals from Heatley and Marleau and seemed to be coasting, but momentum shifted abruptly when Ivo Rutheman and Patrick von Gunten tied the game for the underdog Swiss.
Despite a 47-23 shot advantage, including 18-3 in a frantic third period, Canada was forced into a five-minute, four-on-four overtime and then the nervy shootout that had the 17,019 mostly red-and-white clad spectators on the edge of their seats.
Luckily for Canada, shootouts are now common in the NHL.
The first three shooters for both teams failed to score, including Crosby, who was first up for Canada but failed even to get a shot off after a slow approach. Olympic rules say teams can use the same shooters again after that, so coach Mike Babcock sent Crosby up and he made no mistake the second time.
“I tried to get too fancy on the first one,” he said.
Martin Brodeur stopped all four Swiss shooters quite easily, and Babcock confirmed he will start the final game of round-robin play Sunday against the United States.
It was the fourth anniversary of Canada’s agonizing 2-0 loss to Switzerland at the 2006 Games when they were stoned by goalie Martin Gerber, who missed these Games with an injury. That loss sent Canada into a spiral that saw them finish out of the medals in seventh place.
This time, it was Hiller, the Anaheim Ducks No. 1 who signed an US$18-million, four-year contract on Jan. 30, who frustrated Canada’s collection of NHL stars with 44 saves.
But Canada got the win, and can clinch first place in its preliminary round group with a win over the 2-0 Americans.
Canada was left looking at lost opportunities. Their hapless power play, which Babcock described as “static,” scored once on seven chances and was one reason they failed to build on their early lead.
“After we scored that second one, we had some really good chances,” said Crosby. “There were chances that we might have passed up on earlier and made a few too many (needless) passes.
“Those could have made it three or four goals and made it a different game. We have to learn from that.”
The largely no-name Swiss battled even up for most of the game and gave Canada a scare.
“The psyche for me was knowing it was a pressure game,” said Brodeur. “People expect us to walk right through that team and we just couldn’t do it.”
Olympic rules give three points for a win and only two for a win in overtime or a shootout, so Canada has five points from two games, one behind the United States, who beat Norway 6-1. Switzerland, which earned one point, next plays Norway.
Ralph Krueger, Switzerland’s Winnipeg-born coach, said it was a very different game than the one four years ago because instead of relying on air-tight defence and hope, his team went after Canada and tried to win.
“This was a much better team,” he said. “We played with the puck and created more chances than in Turin.
“And this one was special because we were down 2-0 and came back in their building.”
If revenge was on Canada’s mind, it didn’t look it with a sluggish, tentative start. Canada trailed 7-6 in shots midway through the first period against a hard-working and surprisingly physical Swiss team.
Marleau slipped a puck in front to Heatley, who pushed it free with his skate and slid his third goal of the tournament into an open side behind Hiller to open the scoring.
When Switzerland’s Yannick Weber took his second hooking penalty of the game 27 seconds into the second period, it took the Sharks line only eight seconds to score, as Joe Thornton won a faceoff back to defenceman Shea Weber, whose shot went off Heatley to Marleau for a goal.
Then Switzerland made it a game. After Getzlaf won a faceoff in the Swiss zone, Thierry Paterlini tied up defenceman Drew Doughty at the point, allowing Rutheman to skate in on a two-on-one with Martin Pluss and beat Brodeur with a blast off the far post.
A delayed penalty was about to be called on Pronger and Canada was scrambling it its own zone when fear flashed through the crowd and the private box holding general manager Steve Yzerman and the Team Canada braintrust as van Gunten threw the puck at the net and saw it go in off Marleau’s skate to tie the game.
Hiller was brilliant in the third, making back-to-back huge saves on Ducks teammates Corey Perry and Getzlaf with eight minutes to play. Then there was another save on a Heatley one-timer.
Late in the game, Crosby showed his leadership when was high-sticked by Andres Ambuhl, who wasn’t called. With blood dripping fro his nose, he broke in alone and almost scored, then just missed tapping in a Nash pass at the post in the dying seconds. He didn’t consider going to the bench.
When it came time to pick shooters, Babcock said he went with the three who had the best shootout records in NHL play – Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Getzlaf. Then he went with Crosby again.
“We thought he had a look at Hiller once. . .” Babcock said.
What a difference from 1998, when Canada lost a semifinal shootout to the Czech Republic as superstar Wayne Gretzky was not even picked as one of the shooters.
Marc-Andre Fleury dressed as Canada’s backup goalie while Roberto Luongo, who shut out Norway, did not dress.