VANCOUVER — Someone asked Slovakia’s Michal Handzus how he would handicap Sunday’s Canada-USA Olympic gold-medal match in hockey — not the most tactful of questions, perhaps, coming moments after a desperate comeback by his team against the massively favoured Canadians barely ran out of time.
But he aced the answer.
“It’s not who’s the best team — it’s who’s going to win,” said the big forward, whose goal with a little less than five minutes left Friday night turned a ho-hum semifinal into an 11-car pileup in the Team Canada end in the game’s dying minutes, with bodies and pucks coming at Roberto Luongo from every angle and one final stab by his Vancouver Canucks teammate, Pavol Demitra, that Luongo somehow got just a piece of with his glove.
If not for that, what shaped up on paper as a total mismatch might have looked a lot like what fans saw on the big screen over centre ice, as the teams were warming up prior to the game: Canadian skip Cheryl Bernard’s rink causing 10,000 groans inside Canada Hockey Place by (in shinny parlance) coughing up a two-goal lead in the final period and losing to Sweden in overtime — on a short-handed goal.
Canada’s nervy, 3-2 victory over the Slovaks had no business following the curling team down that road, but it nearly did.
“The way I look at it, it’s the rubber match,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said of Sunday’s final. “They won world juniors, we won the women’s — now the rubber.”
“They must be the favourites.”
Maybe not. And anyway, what’s that worth?
The Canadians, with their $127-million worth of player talent, were simply not allowed to be stopped shy of what was always to be their destiny: a shot at the gold medal on home ice. But especially, a loss to Slovakia, with a lineup containing exactly two players who could have even made Team Canada’s roster — Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Zdeno Chara and forward Marian Gaborik — was out of the question. And Gaborik exited mid-game with what was probably a groin pull.
Without the raw emotion of Tuesday’s quarter-final clash against Russia and the accompanying decibel assault on the eardrums, Canada did a reasonable job of mustering what was needed to win the day. With a 3-0 lead after 40 minutes, there were no particular danger signs until a bad-angle backhander by defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky sneaked past Luongo as he failed to hug the near post at 11:35 of the third period.
That’s all it took to open the door a crack, and a Slovak team that had looked for two periods more like the sort of speed bump Canada faced with Belarus, en route to the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City eight years ago, came alive.
Right about the time the fans started chanting “We want USA!” — have they never heard of the expression “Be careful what you wish for?” — the Canadians seemed to take their eye off the immediate opponent, too. It was almost a fatal error.
“We played with heart, we desired, we wanted,” said Slovak coach Jan Filc. “We were not lucky enough in the end.”
“We wanted to keep our foot on the gas, but I guess it’s human nature a little bit, to try and sit back and preserve that,” said forward Brenden Morrow, who scored the second Canadian goal and has added a healthy dose of grit to the Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry line.
“But that’s not really a recipe for success, and I think we learned a lesson. That team had a lot of battle in them, and they weren’t going to quit.”
Slovakia had already beaten the defending Olympic and world champions, Sweden and Russia, in this tournament, and had more jam than their credentials would have indicated.
Luongo, for his part, called the third-period fire drill “the most fun I’ve ever had” — which just goes to show you how different goalies are.
“If we’d lost, I don’t know if I’d be saying that, but that’s what it’s all about, right there.
“They were going to have one last push. They’re a good team, they weren’t there for nothing. They threw everything at the net and fortunately, couldn’t get the tying goal.”
The last, endless minute ticked down in slow motion.
“You’re kind of scoreboard clock watching and that minute seemed to take a long time,” said Morrow. “Our guys were pretty gassed out there, battling for a while, and just couldn’t get the puck out of the zone to get a line change — but they did a great job, playing with desperation, getting in front of pucks.”
In other, less intense news, Team USA shellacked the Finns 6-1, to set up the Sunday gold-medal match that will give National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman the vapours just thinking about it. Who knows, it might even be on live TV in the States.
If it turns out to be the last NHL-powered Olympic hockey tournament — and somehow that seems doubtful — it will at least be contested by the two most completely made-in-the-NHL teams, $200-plus million worth of talent, on an NHL-sized ice surface, in an NHL building. With all due respect to the Canada-U.S. women’s final, this truly will be a Stanley Cup final Game 7.
“Well, we’ve got something to prove against them,” said Morrow. “I don’t think it’s any mistake these two teams are in the final.”
Given their druthers, he said, “We’d probably rather be playing the beer-league team in the gold-medal game, but that’s not the case. We’re looking forward to it.”
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