Canada plays complete game to come up goldenPosted: Sunday February 24, 2002 7:43 PM
Updated: Monday February 25, 2002 12:28 AM
The pace was breathtaking and the drama palpable. Canada was relentless with its up-ice pressure, repeatedly chasing the USA defensemen to the end boards, finishing with a bump every time and a crunching hit whenever possible.
Theo Fleury tempted fate by giving Chris Chelios a hard hit followed moments later by a crisp crosscheck across the small of the back. But the infraction was not indicative of the intent, merely an early game result of the Canadian resolve. Overall, Canada played with passion and unwavering discipline.
The Americans faced a tough decision from the outset -- stick with their similarly punishing offensive style that had been so successful, or switch to a quick-counterattack style, trying to catch the rambunctious Canadians out of position defensively.
They opted for the latter and it paid off early as a desperation pokecheck at the defensive blueline by Doug Weight started a 2-on-1 that Tony Amonte finished. Still, Canada continued to skate aggressively on the attack and slowly the American blueliners began to give ground. It led to two goals on the rush and a hard-fought, and deserved, lead after 20 minutes.
The middle stanza saw Canada bring more of the same and only Mike Richterís heroics and some fortunate bounces kept Team USA within striking distance. They survived a 5-on-3 power play, including witnessing Mario Lemieux hurry a shot from five feet while staring at a gaping goal. It was the best example of the immense pressure on these players. Even Le Magnifique can miss when under the microscope.
And is so often the case in any competition, when one team is controlling the game, while the score remains close, the team being dominated gets a break and draws even. Thatís exactly what happened when a power-play shot inadvertently glanced off the stick of Chris Pronger and skittered under a surprised Martin Brodeur.
This was the moment that defines battles of this nature. Would the tie ignite the Team USA attack? And, would the tie score despite the edge in play deflate the Canucks? For a time, the U.S. skaters sustained their forecheck, but to little or no effect. Canadaís defenders handled the American forwards with relative ease -- marking them physically, while moving the puck smartly, employing short passes to quiet areas along the boards. Team Canadaís forwards did an outstanding job of getting to those pucks and flipping them up and out of harm's way.
The stage was set for a hero to emerge and embracing the spotlight was Joe Sakic. Already with an assist to his credit on Jarome Iginlaís first-period marker, Sakic scored what would prove to be the game-winner -- the result of hard work down low in the defensive zone, including rush-hour traffic in front of Richter. Sakic elevated his game, as he has done in winning two Stanley Cups and a Hart Trophy. He exuded excellence and refused anything with a silver lining.
With much work to do in the third, Canada played intelligently -- just this side of cautious -- but competently. But Team USA would get its big chance. Just as games of this magnitude feature star turns -- like that of Sakic -- they usually hinge on a single play. That came with just more than five minutes remaining and Team USA on the power play. Brett Hull whizzed his patented one-timer, labeled for the low near corner. Brodeur made his pivot and pushed from left to right, traversing his crease in perfect form, flashing the right pad to the post with no margin for error. In a blink, that was the margin of victory. Canada scored twice late as Brodeurís gold medal game-saver broke the spirit of the Americans.
Ultimately, strategy played a part in this win for Canada, as did superb efforts from several players and execution by a select few in critical moments. Yet, the difference seemed to arise from the fire within the Canadians. Did the architect of this edition of Team Canada, Wayne Gretzky, stoke those flames when he spoke publicly early in this Olympiad? His inflammatory tone brought much derisive attention to the Great One, but possibly the players heard a plea to work harder -- that this is more meaningful than just another tournament.
As the symbol of Canadian hockey excellence for two decades, Gretzky took a risk and put his heart on his sleeve for all to dissect. On Sunday, his team played its heart out for the world to bear witness to a gold medal performance.
Goaltender: Brodeur made the save. In big games, timing is everything.
Defenseman: Pronger struggled mightily in the first game of this tournament. But Sunday, he was in his top form, fiercely fending off USA forwards, while aiding the attack with his beautiful passing touch.
Forward: Sakic scored, he set up goals, he won face-offs, he forechecked ferociously, he led by example and his star burned the brightest when it mattered most. Again.
Darren Eliot, a former NHL goaltender, is a hockey analyst for CNN/Sports Illustrated and is a regular contributor to CNNSI.com.