VANCOUVER – Going into these Olympics, the United States needed veteran leadership, youthful exuberance and out-of-this world goaltending to have even a chance at winning the gold medal.
Check. (So far, at least.)
Canada, on the other hand, needed a goalie who would handle this embarrassment of offensive riches and be dependable enough to keep his team in the game. Canada’s goalie didn’t have to be great. He merely had to be good.
Swing and a miss. (So far, at least.)
And that, in a nutshell, is why the Americans will spend Monday cooling their heels waiting for their quarterfinal opponent and Canada will be back to work trying to find team chemistry and preparing for a game against Germany. Should Canada defeat Germany, next on the docket will be Russia in the quarterfinal, a game that was the dream final prior to the start of the tournament.
In reality, though, USA deserved full marks for its 3-0-0 record in preliminary play, which was capped by an entertaining 5-3 win over Canada Sunday afternoon. It’s interesting to note that 36-year-old defenseman Brian Rafalski scored his third and fourth goals of the tournament in the game, which is four more than Canada has from its entire defense corps.
But scoring from the defensemen is the least of Canada’s problems at the moment. Before they can start putting goals in the other net, they might want to improve their communication with their goaltending to keep them from going in their own cage. For reasons unknown, Brodeur looked as though he had almost no faith in his defensemen and was playing all over the place. On Rafalski’s second goal, Brodeur took a baseball swing on a puck that would have missed the net, which landed on Rafalski’s stick and ended up behind Brodeur.
“That one I saw him winding up and I knew it wasn’t going to the wall so I just went to the middle and it bounced pretty well for me,” said Rafalski, a former teammate of Brodeur. “I’ve seen him do that before and he’s caught me in the ear a couple of times. I had a pretty good idea it was going to go to the middle so that’s where I went.”
Canada didn’t get the requisite contribution from either its young players or its veterans. Sidney Crosby played an inspired game, but was minus-3, along with linemate Rick Nash. There is no way, meanwhile, of sugarcoating what a sub-par game Brodeur had.
“It definitely wasn’t a great game for communication with our ‘D’ and myself,” Brodeur acknowledged.
All of which leaves Canadian Mike Babcock in a rather unenviable quandary. Brodeur is an Olympic hero, the NHL’s all-time wins and shutouts leader and one of the greatest goalies in the history of the game. But Roberto Luongo is more than capable and it’s worthy to note Luongo led Canada to the final of the World Cup in 2004 when Brodeur got hurt. And the fact remains that Canada’s opponents in both Brodeur’s games – Jonas Hiller against Switzerland and Ryan Miller for the Americans – got better goaltending than Canada did.
Babcock said he would look at the game tape unemotionally before making a decision on his goaltending, but acknowledged, “Obviously, we would have liked to be better in that respect.”
The Americans, meanwhile, were probably better than they could have expected in every respect of the game. They were better than Canada 5-on-5, more disciplined, more opportunistic and received infinitely better goaltending. Everything the Americans needed to go right for them coming into the tournament has, from penalty killing to defensive play, to outright hustle from their young players.
The Americans were going to practise Monday morning until they found out their fine finish in the preliminary round resulted in an 8:30 a.m. block of ice time.
“Burkie (American GM Brian Burke) said, ‘We have to skate them Monday,’ and I said, ‘At 8:30?’ and he said, ‘Well, I guess not,’ ”Wilson said. “I have to calm him down sometimes.”
If the Americans continue to get the goaltending and the kind of play they’ve received right down the roster, Burke could have a lot more to get excited about before this tournament ends.
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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