HALIFAX – Any team looking to beat Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship should study tape of this game.
Norway entered as a heavy underdog against the unbeaten hosts but found itself with a chance for an upset after clogging the neutral zone and playing a tight-checking game. It wasn’t pretty but it kept the Canadians at bay until Rick Nash made an incredible solo effort late to pull out the win.
You could almost hear the collective exhale from an edgy Metro Centre crowd after Nash beat a defender and slid the winning goal around Norway’s Pal Grotnes with 3:58 to play.
“We knew what we were in for,” Nash said after the 2-1 win on Thursday. “We didn’t expect it to be that close but I think it’s a good team-building game for us.”
Norway was already already the surprise team of the tournament after earning a point for an overtime loss to Finland and pulling off an upset win over Germany. A victory over Canada would almost have been too good to be true for the small Scandinavian country.
The Norwegians were only 16 hours removed from their emotional win over Germany when the puck dropped in this one.
“We had a hard time getting any sleep,” said forward Mads Hansen.
They still believed they had a chance.
The Norwegians have former NHL coach George Kingston working as an assistant, and he helped prepare the players for what to expect.
“We can’t outplay Team Canada,” said Hansen. “We’ve got to destroy them. We’ve got to be on them all the time and then we’ve got to hope for a break.”
They got it in the second period when Canadian defenceman Duncan Keith turned the puck over at the Norwegian blue-line, and Hansen came in on a short-handed breakaway and beat Pascal Leclaire with a lovely deke move.
That made it 1-1 with just over 26 minutes to play and sent a surge through the Norwegian bench. Suddenly, they were thinking about an upset.
It’s a script that Canadians have seen before with their team at the world championship. Norway and Germany both held Canada’s gold medal-winning team to close games early at last year’s tournament in Moscow.
“We’ve been in this exact same situation,” said captain Shane Doan. “As a country it seems that we have another level of emotions that you can go to and you have to go to it.
“Unfortunately we allowed those teams to play with us in these games. We’ve got to find a way to get it going.”
In other results, the Czech Republic blanked Switzerland 5-0, the United States beat Germany 6-4 and Sweden hammered Denmark 8-1.
Mike Green had the only other goal for a Canadian team that seemed a bit out of sync against Norway even though it put 52 shots on goal. They didn’t create enough traffic in front of Grotnes – especially on the power play – and had some trouble making crisp tape-to-tape passes at times.
As the game wore on with the score still tied, the chances of a losing increased.
“I think there’s always reason for concern in our game,” said Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock. “The goalie is the difference-maker in our sport. He can win games, he can steal games.
“There’s no guarantees because of the goaltender.”
The goalie in this case is a part-time carpenter. Grotnes needs to keep a day job because he doesn’t earn enough money playing for the Halden Comet back in Norway.
He wasn’t really forced to make any spectacular saves but was solid throughout. Hitchcock sensed that his players began to “panic” a little as they saw him stop shot after shot.
Nash released that tension with yet another highlight-reel goal. Afterwards, he was looking forward to some sleep as he, Hitchcock, Leclaire and Jason Chimera had all travelled to Columbus on Wednesday for the funeral of Blue Jackets owner John H. McConnell.
“It’s been a long 24 hours,” said Nash.
It would have been even longer had they lost.
Norway has only ever beaten Canada once in 16 tries at this event and the setting was quite different in St. Petersburg, Russia, when they pulled off the 4-3 upset eight years ago.
“We were hoping again but it didn’t work out,” said captain Tommy Jakobsen.
The game was tied 1-1 heading into the third period and Canada got a 5-on-3 power play for nearly a minute early on. Hitchcock put out five players who had combined for 146 goals in the NHL this season but they couldn’t produce one during the two-man advantage.
Frustration set in soon after and the Canadians took six straight penalties, including a double minor for high-sticking to defenceman Dan Hamhuis.
They managed to kill all those before Nash got the winner.
“We kind of waited a little bit long to pick up our game and find a way,” said Green. “We needed to find a way a little bit earlier.”