Groan Canada, groan

Untimely goofs and a goaltending tour-de-force by Ryan Miller take down Team Canada

VANCOUVER — Before we call the royal commission, or start sacrificing livestock, there’s a statistic worth considering from tonight’s hockey travesty: Team Canada outshot the United States by a ratio of 2 to 1, which is not so much a moral victory as a guy-wire to stabilize our wobbling national pride.

The only score that matters is the one on the blinding, deafening contraption hanging above centre ice, of course. And that read 5-3 Uncle Sam. Which is why U.S. coach Ron Wilson got to needle his counterpart Mike Babcock at the post-game news conference with reminiscences of how the Americans outdid Canada at the 1996 World Cup.

But even Wilson could see the 45-22 total at the bottom of his game sheet, and he wasn’t about to deny that his win came courtesy of the hot handed goaltender he now hopes to ride into the medal round. Ryan Miller, the 29-year-old star of the Buffalo Sabres, was better, much better, than Martin Brodeur on this night, and when you outplay the greatest man to ever strap on pads, that earns kind words from the coach.

“Ryan played every bit as well as I’ve seen him play throughout the season, in the numerous times we’ve played him,” said Wilson, who coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs in his other job. “He makes four or five huge saves a game and he did that today.”

The rest of the U.S. team will be given a morning off tomorrow, Wilson added, deadpanning: “But Ryan will have to work on his puckhandling and rebound control.”

Miller, for his part, described it as one of the biggest games he’d ever played. “I had a Game 7 down in Carolina to get to the Cup and missed that one,” he said. “Winning this one felt really good. We got the goal support, though, scoring five goals against Canada. I thought that was just a great job by our guys.

“When things happened we responded. We didn’t get nervous or anxious. We just kept playing. When they scored that second goal, and we probably had the better chances in the second period and I was really happy to see that.”

The magnitude of the result shouldn’t be overstated—Canada must now play Germany to reach the quarterfinals, but is hardly out of the tournament. Still, it does raise the urgency level of questions that have nagged Babcock since Canada opened the tourney with flat first period against Norway.

One of them revolves around goaltending, thought to be the country’s strong suit as recently as Christmas, but in question in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. Brodeur, perennial all-star Roberto Luongo and Marc-André Fleury, last year’s Stanley Cup winner, all appeared to be off their games. And on this night Brodeur’s legendary penchant for puckhandling got him in trouble, as he coughed up the puck and was forced to cover it during the first shift of the game. A faceoff ensued and U.S. defenceman Brian Rafalski rifled a shot off Sidney Crosby’s stick and into the bottom corner of the net.

Eric Staal tied it for Canada with a nice deflection off Brent Seabrook’s shot, but the Americans replied 23 seconds later, after Brodeur muffed a clearing attempt, putting the puck right on the stick of Rafalski. His old New Jersey teammate made no mistake, pounding it past the sprawling goalie.

Thus began a see-saw battle, with Dany Heatley drawing Canada even at 3:32 of the second before Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner scored consecutive goals for the Americans—the latter coming seven minutes into the third. At that point, Canada threw everything it had at Miller in a series of feverish forechecks, culminating in a power-play goal by Sidney Crosby with just over three minutes left.

It was a tap-in on a lovely pass out of the corner by Rick Nash, but seems notable now for the unconverted chances that proceeded it, including one stunning glove save Miller made on Jarome Iginla while lying prone on the ice.

The last-minute hero for the Americans? That would Ryan Kesler—he of the ill-advised remarks yesterday about how he “hates” the Canadians (which Canadians he didn’t specify, but most assumed he meant the national men’s hockey team). With 45 seconds remaining and the Canadian net empty, Kesler lunged around a backchecking Corey Perry to poke in the insurance goal, his linemates piling on him in joy.

With that, Canada officially moved on, or so the coach would have us believe. “We’ve chosen a longer route to get to where we want to go,” was Mike Babcock’s benign spin, but he’ll surely spend the next 48 hours trying to figure out where he took a wrong turn.

Why, for instance, can’t he seem to find a winger to work well with Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash, potentially his most potent offensive duo? Why does a defensive corps bedecked with Stanley Cup winners and fresh-faced stars seem determined to seek out landmines and step on them? What about goaltending? Babcock said he wanted to look at game tapes before deciding who to start on Tuesday. Yet he allowed that “tonight was a night when we would like to have been better in that area.”

What Babcock can take from this letdown is the obvious fact his team is nowhere near giving up, not on him, not on the fans and certainly not on each other. They took 14 shots in the third and would have taken the Americans to overtime were it not for Miller’s heroics.

“If we play hard like that, if we play desperate like that and control the puck the way we did down low, I like our chances against any team,” Crosby said after the game. “It just didn’t go our way tonight.”