Canada has big goals in mindPosted: Tuesday February 19, 2002 6:50 PM
Updated: Tuesday February 19, 2002 8:36 PM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- For a brief interlude, a full 20 minutes, the world of women's hockey stood on its end. That's how long Finland held its 3-2 lead over Canada in Tuesday's semifinal. "We weren't nervous," says Canada forward Vicky Sunohara. "We were just frustrated."
Canada came into this game favored by an order of magnitude. There have been exactly two national teams of note in the history of women's hockey (you know who they are), and if Finland has been thought of as No. 3 that's only by default. As in the way RC Cola was regarded as third behind Coke and Pepsi.
It was no wonder then that when forward Katja Riipi knocked a cross-ice feed past Canada goalie Kim St. Pierre to put Finland ahead with 3:51 gone in the second period, the Finns celebrated like triumphant Little Leaguers after the final out. They rushed to the right wing corner, arms raised, and fell on top of one another in a giant, ebullient heap. The moment belonged to Finland.
At game's end, the scoreboard read 7-3, Team Canada, and the world's natural order had been restored. The seeming blowout came courtesy of three goals in the final three minutes, but until then the E-Center crowd was thrilled, if somewhat amazed, to have a game on their hands.
Before the final flurry, the difference had been the two goals Canada had scored within six seconds early in the third period. After Hayley Wickenheiser tied the game at 3-3 on a breakaway, Sunohara won the ensuing faceoff and slapped the puck ahead to Jayna Hefford on the right wing. Hefford skated in alone and whipped a neat forehand to beat Finnish goalie Tuula Puputti between her legs. "We've tried that faceoff play again and again all week," said Sunohara. "That time it finally worked."
From there Canada played cautiously, suddenly aware that it had a live wire on the other side of the ice. The Canadian defense never pinched. The team dumped the puck ahead whenever it could while nursing a lead that would put it into the gold-medal game on Thursday.
Having outshot Finland by a 54-18 margin, the only pressing issue Canada will face between now and Thursday's finale is its choice of netminder. It's the same conundrum the U.S. will face, and, like U.S. coach Ben Smith, Canada coach Daniele Sauvageau has a problem with commitment. "We'll make the decision tomorrow," she promised.
The bet here is that we'll see Sami Jo Small in the Canadian nets on Thursday because no matter what Sauvageau says publicly, St. Pierre was not the stonewaller Canada needed Tuesday. Had she made one more big-time save -- after all, she was only forced to make a few all game -- Canada could have avoided a lot of aggravation.
Small, who shut out Russia in the one game she has played in this tournament, is a little more experienced, a little bit older (she's almost 26, St. Pierre is 23) and deserving of the gold-medal chance. Small was with the team in Nagano (though she didn't dress) and so has bonded with the club under Olympic lights before. She was dynamite with the Brampton Thunder in the 2000-01 season.
Whether it's Small or St. Pierre in goal on Thursday, the netminder can't afford to make any mistakes. This game will be against the U.S. And if they get a 3-2 lead in the third period, don't expect them to give it up.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy is in Utah covering the
Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more
behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake