Monday, February 28, 2011

February 28, 2010: Crosby the Golden Boy

VANCOUVER - There probably aren't enough words to describe what this gold medal would mean to the Canadians, just how important it would be to win this game. You can look at Canada's history in Olympic hockey before this game - seven gold medals, including one as recent as 2002 - and wonder why it's such a big deal, why it mattered.

But oh, did it matter. See, these Olympics were being held on Canadian ice. They were the home team, the one the crowd was behind. And despite all of Canada's Olympic success, they had never won hockey gold at home, never watched their flag lifted to the rafters own their own soil. So yah, it mattered.

Maybe it mattered a little too much. Because after crushing Norway in the first game, the unthinkable happened: Canada needed a shootout to beat Switzerland of all teams. Switzerland! Their next game wasn't much better, as they lost 5-3 to the Americans. So maybe things were getting a little tight around the collar. The loss to the Americans wasn't an upset to the level it was in, say, 1960 - this American team was full of NHL players, too. But the Americans were maybe fourth or fifth best in the world. Canada shouldn't have been losing to them.

The loss to the United States meant that Canada had to play an extra game to get to the medal round, and that they had to play Russia in the quarterfinals rather than in the final, ruining the final that everybody had expected. But maybe it was good for Canada to lose to the Americans in group play. Maybe it kicked them in the ass a little bit. They demolished Russia, dropped seven goals on them. Slovakia in the semifinals was a little tougher, but Canada still got past them with ease. That set up the final against ... team USA.

One of the biggest surprises of the 2010 Olympics wasn't that the United States got to the gold medal game, but the ease with which they got there. They were the top seeded team after group play, winning all three games by at least two goals. In the knockout rounds they had gotten past Switzerland and Finland with ease. That Finland game was the surprise. Finland was supposed to be better than the Americans, but team USA scored six on them. It was too easy. And it set up an all-North American gold medal game.

So often, highly anticipated matchups tend to let down, unable to live up to the increased hype. This was not the case for the 2010 gold medal game. The United States and Canada put on a display of beautiful, tense hockey, showing everything that was good and fun about the sport. The Canadians were the fast, skilled team, using crisp passing and wonderful individual skill to keep control of the puck. The Americans, not nearly as talented, nevertheless played smoothly as a unit, looking as if they had been playing together as a team for years rather than weeks. They didn't have the skilled shooters and passers of the Canadians, but they had the hard hitters and the help defenders. In short, the two teams that seemed to be so different, that seemed to have such a talent gap between them, turned out to be pretty evenly matched.

Still, though, despite the brilliant play from goalie Ryan Miller - by far the best goaltender of these Olympics - the Americans were down 2-1 in the final minute. They pulled Miller, got the extra attacker, and threw themselves at the net with fury. Finally, Zach Parise broke through with his fourth goal of the Olympics, pushing a rebound past Roberto Luongo with 24 seconds to play to tie the game.

It was the second time since the Olympics changed formats in hockey that the gold medal game had gone to overtime. The previous time, in 1994, also saw Canada give up a late goal. They lost that one in a shootout. They weren't going to let that happen again.

It happened seven minutes into overtime. Sidney Crosby - Canada's best young player since Lemieux, and the player who would shoulder most of the blame if his team failed - carried the puck into the zone. His first shot was stopped by Miller, and the puck went behind his net. As Crosby skated along the boards to set up the offense, he ran into the linesman, and the puck stopped where it was. That actually turned into a blessing for Canada. Two Americans that had been chasing Crosby went after the puck but lost the race to Jarome Iginla, who had been following the play along the boards. With two men converging on Iginla, he fed a return pass to Crosby, who sent it past Miller for the gold medal-winning goal.

The game was an immediate success. The matchup helped, but how close the game was brought it to new heights. In the United States, it was the most watched hockey game since the final in 1980. But that paled in comparision to the reception in Canada. It is estimated that two-thirds of the Canadian population was watching the moment Crosby scored his overtime goal. His goal sent Canada into a nationwide celebration, one that continued through that night's closing ceremonies and lasted well into the spring.

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