VANCOUVER — The titanic clash that looked increasingly likely over the past few days will come to pass at the 2010 Winter Games, as Canada defeated the Slovaks 3-2 in a nail-biting semi-final to reach the gold-medal game against the U.S.
Sunday’s final in men’s hockey will be the crowning event of the Olympics, reuniting old rivals from the 2002 final in Salt Lake City that gave Canada it’s first gold in the event since 1952.
“I can’t wait,” said Canadian forward Jarome Iginla. “For years, we as players have been talking about being able to play at the Olympics in front of our own fans. The atmosphere has been everything we hoped it would be. Now we have just one more game—a gold-medal game.
“They beat us earlier,” added Iginla, referring to the U.S.’s surprise 5-3 win over Canada in the preliminary round. “We know they’re undefeated. They’re a good skating club and we are too. It’s going to be a fun game.”
It’s also a game Canada came perilously close to missing. After scoring three straight goals and pouring 21 shots on Slovak goaltender Jaroslav Halak during the first two periods tonight, the team sat back and let their opponents back into the game.
With 8:25 left in the third—and fans in Canada Hockey Place chanting “We want U.S.A.!”—Slovak defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky tapped the puck past a sprawling Roberto Luongo, launching the comeback bid.
A goal by Michal Handzus on a scramble in the crease with 4:53 left drew the Slovaks within one, and Luongo was forced to make a miraculous save on his Vancouver Canucks teammate Pavol Demitra to preserve the win with 10 seconds left.
Demitra had set himself up off Luongo’s left post and smacked a bouncing puck toward the net while the goaltender was down. Luongo caught a piece of it with his trapper, knocking it up and out of harm’s way.
“I hit it good,” said Demitra. “I don’t know how Luongo made this save. There were so many guys in front, so maybe it hit something too.”
Luongo described the last-minute scramble as “the most fun I’ve ever had.” “If we would have lost I don’t know if I’d have been saying that,” he acknowledged. “They were throwing everything at the net, pucks, bodies, anything. Obviously they gave it all they had at the end and the puck stayed out.”
Team Canada looked tight on its first couple of shifts of the game, yet soon assembled a couple of scoring chances, including a rebound off a shot by Scott Niedermayer that bounced over the blade of Corey Perry’s stick.
By the middle of the first period, Canadian forwards were creating traffic in Halak’s crease, cycling the puck and working it back to the point for dangerous shots. At 13:30 Patrick Marleau deflected a shoulder-high wrister by defenceman Shea Weber past Halak. Then, less than two minutes later, Brenden Morrow scored on a similar play, redirecting a well-placed point shot from Chris Pronger.
Late in the second period, Ryan Getzlaf then backhanded a power-play rebound over Halak’s left shoulder to make it 3-0.
Clearly the Canadians had identified Halak as a problem to be solved, and found a solution in crowding his crease. The underrated netminder for the Montreal Canadiens has been one of the top goaltenders of the tournament, and on this night turned aside 25 of the 28 shots keeping his team in the game with some eye-catching saves in the third.
Slovak coach Jan Filc credited Team Canada for going to the net, saying, “we were not able to cover their players in front on three goals that were very similar. That’s why we had to try to do everything in the last couple of minutes.”
Mike Babcock was satisfied with the overall performance, if not exactly thrilled by his team’s dismount. “I thought our whole group came unraveled a bit at the end. But those are good experiences. If you stop playing you’re not going to win. You’ve got to play the full 60 minutes because the [opposing] teams are too good.”
He and his charges now face a U.S. team riding the momentum of a 6-1 demolition of the Finns, and possessed of their own hot goaltender, Ryan Miller.
The Americans have assiduously cast Canada as a prohibitive favourite, and themselves as underdogs, despite being the only team to go through the tournament undefeated.
Babcock had some fun with the rhetoric after the tonight’s game. “They’re rolling,” he said with exaggerated emphasis. “I mean, they just crushed the other team today. They must be the favourite going in.”