We have lift-off

Canadian men confess to some "pucker," but all's well that ends well

Even from their bubble in the athletes’ village, members of the Canadian men’s hockey team could see it—a gathering tide of red flags and banners and No. 87 jerseys, slowly filling the streets of Vancouver.

Scott Niedermayer’s spirits lifted.

“We’re pretty locked down, you know, behind gates the whole way,” he says. “But yeah, we could see the fans, and it was great. The town’s having a lot of fun right now. That’s the way it should be.”

But there’s a downside to all that expectation. A quickened pulse, a tighter grip on the stick, an urge to move too quickly. “Puckering up,” as Canadian coach Mike Babcock vividly described it.

And for 23 minutes tonight, the Canadian men were about as clenched as a team can be, bobbling passes, overshooting their checks and generally playing at the level of the Norwegian team they were supposed to grind under their skates. In the dressing room after the first period, with the score 0-0, they went over the basics, reassuring themselves that everything would be okay.

They were right. After Jarome Iginla scored at 2:30 of the second period, one-timing a perfect pass from Sidney Crosby on the power play, they were off to an 8-0 win in their first game of a tournament their own coach suggests could be the best international meet ever. Norway just couldn’t cope when the rugged Canadian forwards began jamming the front of the net and cycling in the offensive zone, executing crisp passes.

Iginla finished with a hat trick that official scorers will acknowledge after watching a replay of a third-period goal credited to Rick Nash. Dany Heatley got two, while Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Mike Richards each scored once.

“It was a pretty tough game for us, of course,” said Norwegian coach Roy Johansen. “We didn’t have the strength in the third period to keep up.”

In retrospect, Canada’s slow start was predictable. Nothing less than gold will do for this team, the first bona fide, top-drawer squad to ever compete in an Olympics on Canadian soil. Or so we keep hearing from the foreign press (just in case you thought psych-warfare is restricted to the ice surface).

The question was how they would cope. As Babcock pointed out, a flukey power-play goal by Norway earlier on could have worsened the, uh, pucker, leading the Scandinavians to believe in their capacity to kill giants.

For the Canadian players, the key was simplification. Three of their five goals in the third period came thanks to goal-mouth traffic; they used their size to get pucks in deep, and shot when the shooting was good. Babcock’s task was a little more complicated. His pivotal move was to re-unite a line he tried at a summer selection camp with mixed results: Crosby, Iginla and Rick Nash.

The result? The trio finished the game with a combined eight points. “It’s pretty exciting to play with Sid. Every pass is in your wheelhouse,” Iginla said later. “On that first goal, I was just backing up, hoping to get open. He gave one fake and gives me a wide-open shot.”

And Patrice Bergeron, who lost his spot on the Crosby line, made a better fit on an energy trio with Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews. He collected a hard-won assist on Richards’s goal, carrying the puck behind the Norwegian net shorthanded, and leaving it for Richards to score on a wrap-around.

At that point, everyone on the Canadian bench seemed to relax, and their confidence was most evident on the power-play, which loosened into a puck-moving dynamo after a couple of squandered opportunities late in the first. The team finished up 2-6 with the man-advantage.

Roberto Luongo, playing before his NHL home crowd, was the one Canadian who seemed immune from nerves, stoning the Norwegians on the few good opportunities their 15 shots on goal afforded—twice early in the game. Canada fired 34 on Pal Grotnes and Andre Lysenstoen (Grotnes, who looked sharp despite giving up the first four goals, left with a leg cramp early in the third).

What conclusions can be drawn from the win?

Not many. At ice level, Norway’s players looked conspicuously smaller and weaker than the Canadians—especially the towering presences of Nash, Staal and Pronger. Canada will face much tougher competition later in the week against Switzerland (Thursday) and the U.S. (Sunday).

But if pressure is Canada’s unseen enemy in this tournament, well, they slew the foe tonight with extreme prejudice.

Pucker be gone.