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Friday, February 22, 2002
Canada takes rougher road to final

By E.J. Hradek
ESPN The Magazine


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Four years ago in Nagano, Team Canada ripped through the Olympic tournament, outscoring their opponents 16-4 before suffering a heartbreaking 2-1 semifinal shootout loss to eventual gold-medal winner Czech Republic.

The following day, the Canadians lost to Finland and went home without a medal.

That won't happen this time.

In fact, they'll do no worse than silver after a 7-1 victory against unlikely semifinal opponent Belarus at a less than full E Center on Friday afternoon. The Canadians, who haven't won an Olympic gold medal in ice hockey since 1952 (they didn't participate in the 1972 or '76 tournaments), will meet the winner of the United states on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET).

"Waking up on Sunday, it will be like a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals," said Team Canada center Joe Sakic, who was on the winning end of just such a Cup final game in June.

Comparing the two, Sakic said, "If you win either (the Cup or the gold), you get the big hardware at the end."

Coming into the game as a heavy favorite, the Canadians knew exactly what they wanted to do against Belarus, which had stunned another big favorite, Sweden, on Wednesday.

"We wanted to get off to a good start," Canada defenseman Rob Blake said. "We wanted to take away their will to win. We knew, the longer they stayed in the game, the more excited they'd get."

Canada has traveled a potholed path from the start here when they dropped a 5-2 decision to Sweden. They followed that up with an unimpressive 3-2 victory against Germany and a come-from-behind 3-3 draw with the Czechs, which prompted a rare public outburst from the team's executive director, Wayne Gretzky.

Still, the Canadians were getting better with each successive effort.

In their crossover elimination game, the Canadians held off a late-charging Team Finland 2-1 to advance to the semifinal, where they were pleasantly surprised to find Belarus.

"We knew we were dealt a good hand (for the semis)," Canada right wing Theo Fleury said. "Still, we had to come out and get the job done."

And they did just that.

The Canadians dominated the first 10 minutes of the game, taking a 1-0 lead when center Steve Yzerman fired a wrist shot past Belarus goalie Andrei Mezin at the 6:05 mark. At that point, Canada was outshooting Belarus, 7-0. The Belarusians didn't get their first shot until the 10:11 mark, when defender Ruslan Salei tossed a weak shot at Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur.

On the their third shot, though, Belarus tied the game, 1-1, sending a mild scare through the many Canadian fans in the crowd. The scoring play, which occurred at 13:24, started innocent enough when Canadian defenseman Al MacInnis, behind his net, passed the puck up the left-wing boards. But the puck kicked off the skate of Canada forward Brendan Shanahan, going right to Salei, who one-timed a shot past Brodeur.

Canada resumed domination in the final five minutes of the period. Defenseman Eric Brewer scored at 17:25 to give the Canadians a 2-1 lead. Actually, Mezin stopped Brewer's shot but knocked the puck into his own net when he was trying to freeze it with his glove.

Canada could have had a lot more in the first period, but Mezin was good -- and lucky. He stopped 15 of 17 shots, while three other shots (from MacInnis, Fleury and defenseman Scott Niedermayer) ringed off the post.

The Canadians upped the lead to 4-1 in the second period, chasing Mezin from the crease (he was replaced by Sergei Shabanov). Canada captain Mario Lemieux set up both goals (by Niedermayer and Paul Kariya) with brilliant touch passes.

Left wing Simon Gagne, center Eric Lindros and right wing Jarome Iginla finished the scoring for Canada, which out shot Belarus 51-14 in the rout.

Afterward, Lemieux talked about going to a gold-medal game.

"It means a lot to all of us, to the players and to Canadians back home," said Lemieux, who reiterated that the Olympics have been his No. 1 priority this year. "It is something we haven't done for a long time. Winning a gold medal has been our goal since we came together last September in Calgary. It means a whole lot to the whole country."

In this tournament, as Canada learned in '98, it's not how you start but how you finish.

"We've been getting better and better," Team Canada coach Pat Quinn said. "Maybe we'll play our best game of the tournament on Sunday."

An entire nation hopes so.

E.J. Hradek writes for ESPN The Magazine.