World Cup finally fills the bill
TORONTO -- In a tournament that has been derided and ignored, has featured petulant stars and embattled coaches, this was, finally, a keeper.
It was a night filled with whip-saw momentum, nail-biting tension and in the end, a victory by a Canadian team that will ensure at least one half of the marquee match-up in Tuesday's championship that many believed was the only way to save the event.
The fact that the Canadians did not deserve to win this game, were outplayed, out-worked and out-chanced by a Czech team that showed remarkable poise will quickly be forgotten. Instead, it will be remembered as a thrilling win in another chapter of Canada's ongoing hockey chronicles, the life book of the nation.
"We escaped, I guess," said Canadian coach Pat Quinn. "I think that our guys know that they didn't play their best tonight and we got through when possibly you shouldn't."
In the Czech dressing room, there wasn't so much a sense of anger or despair as much as disbelief. The night will not go down as easily for the Czechs, a large, bitter pill for a talented team still raw from grief over the loss of much-loved coach Ivan Hlinka two days before the start of training camp.
"Not maybe. We were the best team. As a team," Vaclav Prospal said. "Nobody's going to remember that in five or 10 years. They're going to remember that Canada won in overtime. Sometimes it doesn't go your way I guess. They won, so they get to play on Tuesday and we're going home tomorrow."
A few feet away Milan Hejduk sat half-dressed at his dressing room stall with a bewildered look on his face.
"It was a really good game. Probably, it might be the best game I ever played," said Hejduk, who had a glorious chance from the side of the net in overtime thwarted by Roberto Luongo.
By the time Hejduk reached the bench, Vincent Lecavalier was at the other end of the Air Canada Centre, at the side of the Czech net, deftly maneuvering the puck from between his feet and roofing a bad angle shot to end the game at the 3:45 mark.
"They didn't have much in the overtime," Hejduk said. "First chance, goal. I feel like we didn't deserve to lose tonight. If I score the goal, it would be over."
There would have been a delicious irony had the Czechs been the ones to meet the upstart, down-tempo Finns on Tuesday. A final this tournament perhaps deserved, a kind of anonymity festival for a sport willing to put its long-term identity -- existence even -- on the line for the sake of ego and few bucks.
Tuesday's championship game will be followed a little more than 24 hours later by a lockout that now virtually everyone, including the players and owners, is predicting will last at least half a season, if not longer. The fact the players and owners, the twin solitudes of this labor tango, are happy partners in the World Cup of Hockey is just another reason for the resounding cynicism that has surrounded much of the proceedings.
Brett Hull was benched by U.S. coach Ron Wilson and essentially told the fans to take a flying leap.
Janne Niinimaa bolted the Finnish team before their quarterfinal game with Germany because he couldn't get along with head coach Raimo Summanen.
The Czechs, of course, had Ivan Hlinka's death to contend with and a conflict with head coach and longtime Hlinka colleague Vladimir Ruzicka.
But even the most cynical observer must have felt a quickening of the pulse as Saturday's game started to wind itself into a frenzy in the second period, a frenzy that did not relent until Team Canada spilled over the boards, falling all over themselves in a happy-puppy rush to get to Lecavalier.
But the Czechs, criticized earlier in the tournament for being heartless and lacking competitive spirit, remained undaunted and continued to carry the play to Canada.
Lemieux's former teammate, Jaromir Jagr, was terrific, creating splendid chances on almost every shift in spite of his complaints of a nagging hip/stomach injury.
The Czechs pulled to within a goal just 42 seconds after the Lemieux goal and then tied it 7:21 into the third on the power play. The goal by Martin Havlat came 1:21 after Lecavalier was whistled for hooking in the offensive zone and would set the stage for Lecavalier's own heroics later.
"It was very frustrating," Lecavalier said. "I had to forget about it. You can't think about the past."
Luongo, who replaced the injured Martin Brodeur, was under siege for much of the night. At one point midway through the third, he played for the better part of 30 seconds without a stick, making several key stops along the way as he called for his teammates to pick up his paddle.
"The crowd was so loud I don't think they heard me," Luongo said after.
Kris Draper, who appeared postgame with a red and otherwise discolored right eye, looked to have scored the winner with a blast from the left side that beat Tomas Vokoun high to the glove side with just 6:13 left in the third. But once again the Canadian team defense, which has been so strong throughout the tournament allowing just three goals in the previous four games, buckled, allowed Patrik Elias to score just six seconds later to knot the game at 3-3.
"We've got a lot of young guys. I'm not trying to blame guys here, but young guys still play with young minds," Quinn said. "We got tentative. I'm not sure why. I guess maybe it's because we wanted to win so bad we were thinking about winning and not performing, doing the jobs we had to do.
"We have to play a different way if we expect to win Tuesday night."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.