Canada's story can finally be goldPosted: Thursday February 21, 2002 1:15 PM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- As if the prospect of elimination weren't stakes enough, there was a silver medal hanging in the balance of Wednesday night's quarterfinal match between Canada and Finland. That is, if you accept the premise that lightning will not tear a hole through the E Center ice twice in three days. Canada plays Belarus in Friday's semifinal and the Canadians would need a whole team of hard-headed Salos for Belarus to keep this one close. "It was big relief when we saw that Belarus had beaten Sweden," said Mario Lemieux after Canada had beaten Finland 2-1 to advance. "That was pretty nice."
In a few days Canada has gone from a team that appeared overmatched and out of sorts to one that, essentially, needs only one tough win (over the U.S. v. Russia winner) to take the gold medal. This is a team that, to a man, said it would come together in time for the elimination round. And it has. "It takes a little time," said center Joe Nieuwendyk, who has played between Brendan Shanahan and Theo Fleury on a very high-energy line. "The first couple of days we kind of stood around looking at each other like 'Who's going to do what?' Now we've come together. We know our roles better and we know how to count on each other."
Canada has been counting on big No. 66 from the first drop of the puck. When Lemieux played sluggishly in the tournament's first game, against Sweden, Canada fell 5-2. You could see teammates waiting for Mario to do something in that game, and when he didn't, Canada sagged. Lemieux came back, however, to score twice versus the Czech Republic, and against Finland he made the kind of play you pay to see.
Late in the second period, Steve Yzerman skated down the left wing into the Finnish zone, turned himself so that he was coasting backwards and slid a forehand pass to Lemieux near the top of the circle. Lemieux held the puck for that stutter-second we have long since come to recognize but still leaves defenders in knots. Then he softly sent the puck back to Yzerman, still backing in, and he thwacked it into the open side of the net.
That made it 2-0, but it didn't mean Finland was done. Twenty seconds later a goal by Niklas Hagman made it 2-1. After the post-game press conference Finnish coach Hannu Aravirta lauded his team's resiliency and then he did what most North American hockey coaches would be way too jaded and haughty to do. He wished Canada luck and thanked everyone for letting Finland compete in the tournament.
We can't let Finland leave without thanking them for the hockey they gave us. "They came at us and came at us like we knew they would," said Canadian defenseman Al MacInnis. "They're an aggressive team and they didn't stop."
Finland is the kind of plucky team that gets the impartial fan rooting for it. The Finns were overmatched against Canada, but they never stopped skating and they sure picked up a lot of loose pucks. Finland pressed until the very end, and was a deflection away from sending this game into a shootout.
If you ever see Don Cherry, and if you hear him say that players from Finland are anything less than tough as beef jerky, tell him to piss off. The Finns hit and dug and gave every effort they had to the game. "I can't see what else we could have done except to score one more goal," said Aravirta.
They didn't score the goal in part because Canada's defense has been shrinking the wide ice for a couple of games now. You see Rob Blake throwing hip checks the way he did against Finland and you know Canada's defense is on its game.
Most important, Canada is confident. A lack of assuredness may have been all that kept them from winning a medal in Nagano four years ago. That team, as Canada coach Pat Quinn pointed out Wednesday night, was petrified of losing. "Fear can keep you from executing in a game like this," said Quinn. "It's as simple as that."
No one's petrified this year. With all respect to Belarus -- and it pulled the greatest upset in recent Olympic memory by beating Sweden -- that team does not send even the slightest shudder into the Canadian room. We've checked the weather and there's no lightning forecast for any time soon. You can bet a case of Polygamy Porter that in a few days Canada will be playing for the gold.
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 City.