WITH THREE MINUTES LEFT IN CANADA'S 8-2 CONTROLLED SCRIMMAGE over outclassed Germany in the qualification game for the Olympic quarterfinals, the raucous, red-clad crowd at Canada Hockey Place—boldly ignoring a mother's dictum of being careful what one wishes for—began the chant, "We want Russia. We want Russia." ¶ The fans, of course, were not alone. ¶ Basically the entire hockey world—or at least anyone with a sense of hockey history and a dash of romance—wanted Canada to play Russia. Just not in the quarterfinals.
After its uneven play in the round robin, Team Canada finished outside the top four seeds and thus suffered the ignominy of playing an elimination game a mere 24 hours before facing its most natural (and well-rested) rival. The Canadians couldn't know it at the time, but taking the early scenic route through the Olympic field proved to be the launching pad to a gold medal run.
The game seemed to settle Team Canada, which had appeared jittery. Through the first three round-robin games Mike Babcock had looked less like the NHL's most astute bench coach than like Bill Nye the Science Guy—given the continual chemistry experiments, he could have been wearing a lab smock instead of a suit. Consider the rotating linemates of Sidney Crosby, the No. 1 center. Before Germany he had played with Patrice Bergeron, Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash on his right flank. He'd had Nash and Mike Richards on his left. Bergeron had gone from first-line winger to face-off specialist and penalty killer. Richards had gone from the fourth line to the first line and back to the fourth. Brent Seabrook had started playing with his Chicago Blackhawks defense partner Duncan Keith, but after the first period of the opening 8-0 rout of Norway, there had been times you couldn't have spotted Seabrook with the Hubble telescope.
While the extra match obliged the Canadians to play the equivalent of four Game 7s in six days, it also allowed them to finally forge the kind of team that could cut a swath through higher seeds. Eric Staal looked at ease on Crosby's left; Iginla found his scoring touch on Crosby's right; Nash, back on left wing, landed comfortably with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry; and goalie Roberto Luongo, replacing Martin Brodeur, at least broke a mild sweat. To Babcock's credit, the juggling act helped Team Canada bounce back after a galling loss to the United States.
That painful blow occurred Feb. 21. The day was dubbed Super Sunday by the unimaginative—the tripleheader included Russia-Czech Republic and Sweden-Finland—but it actually was Hockey Day in Heaven until the Canadian game went to hell in a handbasket. Although Canada had roughly double the shots and double the scoring chances, Team USA got its first Olympic win over Canada in 50 years. Still, the 5-3 defeat was hardly even a minor miracle on ice. The only touch of the divine was Ryan Miller's goaltending in the American net, especially when juxtaposed with an off night from Brodeur.
The estimable Brodeur let in three iffy goals, including a Brian Rafalski shot 41 seconds into the game. The goalie looked particularly awkward on a second Rafalski goal midway through the period on a sequence that began when Brodeur took a from-the-heels swing at a puck, batting it directly to the U.S. defenseman a stride inside the blue line. Rafalski then skittered another low shot along the ice that Brodeur, who was stacking his pads in a move that was so very early '90s of him, failed to stop.
Team Canada twice rallied from one-goal deficits, but a rebound goal by Chris Drury—Brodeur lost his position when he was bumped by David Backes—again forced Canada to push the puck, if not a boulder, uphill against Miller, who would finish with 42 saves. Iginla ticketed a shot from the right circle with about four minutes left, but Miller snatched it. Despite buzzing the offensive zone for a full 80 seconds following a late Crosby goal, Canada could not stump Miller again. Ryan Kesler's empty-netter sent the Canada Hockey Place crowd home in a stunned and ugly mood. Team USA winger Patrick Kane noted that even downtown Vancouver was sullen. "It's almost like we shut down the city," he said.
The Canadians' unconvincing 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland in the previous match might have been an omen. Canada grabbed a 2-0 lead, a Swiss player then grabbed defenseman Drew Doughty in an unpenalized bear hug in neutral ice, and a resulting two-on-one pulled the Swiss to within a goal. With 10 seconds remaining in the second period and defenseman Chris Pronger in the corner, a puck glanced off Patrick Marleau's skate in front of the net and past Brodeur.
As the game against the Swiss lurched through the third period, overtime and ultimately a shootout, Team Canada would turn to its best player.
In the shootout Crosby, who at age 10 had watched the disastrous Nagano 1998 semifinal shootout against the Czechs on TV, tried a deke; Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller snuffed it. After Jonathan Toews and Getzlaf were foiled, Babcock pondered using Nash as the next shooter. But afforded the luxury of going to the top of his batting order by IIHF rules, he went back to Crosby. Sid had stickhandled the first time but had noticed Hiller was not moving much. The second time up Crosby let a shot rip. Goal. One Brodeur save later—he stopped all four Swiss chances—Crosby had written another story in his book of legends.