VANCOUVER – Early in the third period with Canada leading 3-0, the chants came down from the rafters, “We want USA! We want USA!”
Turns out the Canadian players were being just as presumptuous. Either that or the Slovak Olympic team has more intestinal fortitude than we ever imagined.
In any event, Canada and USA are off to their second gold medal matchup in the past three Olympics, but not before the Canadian team provided some interesting moments by giving up two late goals to hang on for a 3-2 win in the semifinal Friday night.
The Slovaks couldn’t send it to overtime despite a desperate flurry in the last minute, with Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo making a glove save off Pavol Demitra that appeared to be headed for the open net. The thing that made the Slovakian effort even more impressive was the fact their top NHL star, Marian Gaborik, missed the second half of the game with an injury.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had,” Luongo said. “If we had lost I don’t know if I would be saying the same thing.”
When asked what we could learn from the last half of the third period when Canada was badly outplayed, Luongo said, “The Slovaks are a good team and they deserved to be there. They’ve got some guys who could play, too. You can’t win every game 7-3.”
Whether or not the Slovaks win the bronze medal Saturday, they are full marks for their effort in these Olympics. They were nobody’s pick to get this far, but showed a tremendous amount of gumption and poise to get to the semifinal. There are very real concerns about the future of Slovakian hockey. The tiny country is not producing elite level players near the way it has in the past and their national program will suffer in years to come. But the veterans at least gave the country a source of pride.
“I hope our team was part of a very nice theatre,” said Slovakian coach Jan Filc.
Once Canada got scored on at the 11:35 mark on a terrible read by Luongo, the entire team became unglued, something it has yet to do in this tournament and a development that has to be a source of concern going into the gold medal game.
“When we got scored on, it was amazing how we couldn’t make a pass or make a play,” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock.
Going into the gold medal game against USA Sunday, the Canadians have to be experiencing some mixed feelings when it comes to the quality of their game.
On the positive side, after a slow start, the defense corps has picked up the pace offensively and the players seem much more confident when they have the puck on their sticks. With four assists in the semifinal, Canada’s defense corps enters the gold medal game with 27 points from its blueliners.
Other positive developments include the increasingly good play of the Corey Perry-Ryan Getzlaf-Brenden Morrow line. They, too, are beginning to feel much more comfortable together and are using their size to make life difficult for opposing goalies. That will be pivotal against the U.S., who have a goalie in Ryan Miller who likes to have few obstructions in front of him.
On the less-than-positive side, the Eric Staal-Sidney Crosby-Jarome Iginla line has been very, very quiet for the past two games. And even though he hasn’t been tested that much, Luongo still looks a little skittish in the net. Canada can ill afford for him to surrender bad goals in the final.
Not many expected the Americans to be such a juggernaut, but the gold medal game has clearly become a pick ‘em affair. Babcock even joked that the Americans have played so well, they’ve thrust themselves into the role of gold medal favorite.
“The way I see it, this is the rubber match,” Babcock said. “They won the world juniors and we won the women’s so there’s the rubber right there.”
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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