Commentary

Just like that, Canada back on track

Updated: February 25, 2010, 2:23 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When this debacle was over and a nation's pulse went from "cardiac" to "elation," it was Russian netminder Ilya Bryzgalov who put it best.

"They came like gorillas out of a cage."

It's an image that vividly captures Canada's 7-3 thrashing of a Russian team that was supposed to ride its marvelous talent to the nation's first gold medal since 1992.

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby
AP Photo/Matt SlocumNeither Alex Ovechkin, left, nor Sidney Crosby had a single point in Wednesday's clash.

Canada has never lacked skill, necessarily, but its national hockey identity has always been closely tied to the physical, to hard work, to not just claiming the game as its own but somehow protecting it, too.

Wednesday's victory is another brick in that protective wall around the game.

"You want to do well because you're proud and because you think hockey is Canada's game," Canada coach Mike Babcock said after his team paid the Russians back for a quarterfinal loss in Torino, Italy, four years ago. "Now, I know it's pretty obvious it's the world's game, but we still think it's ours, and I'm a bit of a redneck, and so I like to think it's ours."

You know what they say about payback? Well, it's true.

Russia's 2-0 win over Canada in 2006 sparked a continuous dialogue about how the Canadian Olympic team should be structured, what it should look like and who should be on it.

That dialogue, of course, reached a fever pitch as the tournament started in Vancouver. Earlier this week, red flags (as opposed to red and white flags) were once again going up all over Canada.

Canada squeezed out a 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland, then lost 5-3 to the United States on Sunday night. It didn't matter that the Americans had been badly outplayed by the Canadians -- paralytic fear had set in across the host nation.

Was this Torino all over again? Evil portents were everywhere.

Babcock made a goaltending switch, yanking winningest NHL goalie Martin Brodeur and turning to hometown favorite Roberto Luongo in Canada's qualification game against Germany on Tuesday. The line combinations were in constant motion. By our count, Sidney Crosby has played with six different wingers since the opening game. The defense seemed slightly out of sync.

Then, the Russians were coming, and they were loaded for bear.

But -- poof! -- it all went away. Like the Russians' resolve.

Ryan Getzlaf roared into the Russian zone and scored 2:21 into the game. Dan Boyle's point shot snuck past Patrick Marleau and beleaguered Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov just past the midpoint of the first period, and Rick Nash made it 3-0 before the 13-minute mark. It was 4-1 at the end of the first period, 6-1 before the five-minute mark of the second and 7-2 by the end of the second.

Every time the Russians turned around, they were being ridden into the boards, stripped of the puck and outworked along the walls.

Surprised?

"Maybe a little bit with the score, but we know we have a great team," said Eric Staal, who chipped in an assist on the seventh and final goal. "We had confidence in our room and we had a great start. We went after them right away, and our energy and momentum really carried through.

"We felt like we had a lot of jump," Staal said. "We were at the boiling point as soon as that puck dropped to start the game. We were really firing with a lot of energy and the atmosphere was unbelievable and that adds to it. It was a lot of fun out there."

In the aftermath of what was the biggest all-time Olympic victory by Canada over archnemesis Russia, the national concern seemed wildly misplaced. Maybe those of us chronicling the evolution of the Canadian team should have taken our cues from executive director Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman could have followed the path of predecessor Wayne Gretzky, whose impassioned "Canada versus the World" speech midway through the 2002 Salt Lake City Games was seen as a galvanizing moment. He chose not to. Earlier this week, U.S. GM Brian Burke publicly chided his team after its win over Canada, saying many of his players weren't pulling on the same rope, and that might have been a factor in the Americans' 2-0 win over Switzerland in another quarterfinal Wednesday.

Yzerman could have taken a similar tack. He did not. Yzerman explained that this team is an evolution, a work in progress, and he gave not the smallest hint that he didn't think it would get him to this point -- another shot at a gold medal.

"That was our goal coming into the tournament, was to get better every game, and I think we've been doing a good job with that," defenseman Brent Seabrook said. "We've had some bumps in the road and some hiccups. I think what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I think we've learned from our mistakes and I think that showed tonight.

"That game was probably the loosest we've been since the beginning of the tournament," added Boyle, who had, by far, his best game of the tournament. "I'm not sure why. It was our biggest game. We were ready to go."

The funny thing about a game like Wednesday's, the buildup to the contest -- Canadians were expected to watch the game in record numbers, every single one holding his or her breath -- is, in its immediate aftermath, almost completely forgotten.

"It feels good. It's a huge game, but it doesn't feel like the gold-medal game," Jarome Iginla said. "There's still work to be done."

The Russians, so feared, are gone (insert appropriate farewell here), and the Canadians will play a semifinal game Friday against Slovakia. If they play at all as they did Wednesday, they'll play in the gold-medal game Sunday afternoon. And if they play like this again then, well, it'll be a tall order for any team to deny the Canadians what they believe is their destiny.

"All we've done now is set ourselves up with a chance," Babcock said. "We like our team, we like our opportunity. There's pressure on us because we feel we have a chance. To me, that's a really good thing."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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