After loss, Canada makes changes
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- All was fine with Team Canada on Monday in the aftermath of a 5-3 loss to the rival Americans.
But just in case, the top two forward lines were juggled, there's a new man in goal and Team Canada's architect held a news conference.
Panic? That's for the 35 million armchair quarterbacks in the Great White North. No, Monday's changes come from a powerhouse team that feels it's close yet not quite where it needs to be.
After all, this is a team that leads the entire Olympic tournament with 134 shots on goal -- averaging a whopping 44.6 per game. Russia is a distant second, 21 shots behind in total.
And yet, here is Team Canada, needing to play an elimination game Tuesday night with Germany to gain the chance to play again the very next night against the mighty Russians in the quarterfinals. Nope, not the path anybody would want, no matter how you spin it.
"Last night's game was a fantastic hockey game in which our hockey team played extremely well, outshooting the U.S. almost 2-to-1," Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said Monday. "In general, I think we're very pleased with how we're playing, we're not necessary thrilled that we're 2-1, but it is what it is. We're very encouraged; I think our players are playing hard and are very close. We're getting better with each game, and that was our goal, to improve with each game. We've got another chance tomorrow night with the Germans to take another step forward."
"I felt going into the tournament that we set ourselves up with the possibility of making one change [in goal]," coach Mike Babcock explained. "We talked a lot about it. We played both guys in the first three games and we felt if we needed to make a change we'd have one and now we're making it."
Let's not underplay this: It's a gutsy call by Babcock, who confirmed it is Luongo's net for the rest of the tournament. It's not every day you tell a goalie with Brodeur's legacy to take a seat. It's akin to telling Nolan Ryan in his twilight years to head to the bullpen.
How did Brodeur take it? Well, the normally very accessible Brodeur declined media requests to come out and talk after practice Monday so we can only presume he's not very pleased. He likely didn't want to upset the applecart.
Luongo? He's pumped.
"It's going to be fun to play in front of the fans again," said the Vancouver Canucks captain. "I had a great experience my first game against Norway [an 8-0 shutout]. The support was unbelievable. The stage is bigger tomorrow night, and I'm assuming it'll be a bit louder."
And now we find out about Mr. Luongo, the franchise goalie groomed since his teens for this very moment, ever since he stood on his head in the 1999 world juniors for Canada. He was always the heir apparent to Brodeur for Team Canada, and now he takes the net from him on the biggest stage in hockey. He hasn't delivered a Stanley Cup in Vancouver, but now he can bring the city Olympic gold.
"The excitement level is really high right now, probably one of the highest it's ever been," Luongo said.
His critics (led by our own Scott Burnside) will be quick to tell you that he hasn't won anything of note in the NHL. And that's true. Luongo crashed and burned big time against Chicago in the second round of the playoffs last season. But I will also point out, having had the chance to cover the 2003 and 2004 world hockey championships, that Luongo delivered and then some in those back-to-back gold medal tournaments for Canada.
"I've had a lot of experiences at the international level," Luongo said. "I've been part of these situations a lot. I know what to expect. It's not easy, but I'm going to really enjoy this one."
Watching from afar, you just know Team USA GM Brian Burke is reveling in the host country's hockey drama. He's been reminding everyone with a tape recorder or TV camera for months that the pressure on Team Canada would be unrelenting. So yes, we're not the least bit surprised he had an opinion on Canada's goalie change after being asked about it Monday.
"People forget [Brodeur] stopped a semi-breakaway against Dustin Brown and a breakaway on Bobby Ryan in the second period and in the third period he made some unbelievable point-blank saves," Burke said. "I think Marty Brodeur will go down as one of the greatest goalies that ever played. I think Canada is in a luxurious position of having an embarrassment of riches at that position from which to choose. You're talking about a gold-standard goaltender in Marty Brodeur, a gold-standard goaltender in [Marc-Andre] Fleury and, as I said when we played here earlier, I think the best goalie over the past two years has been Roberto Luongo. You're talking apples and apples there. They are three great players."
Up front, the juggling continued as the Rick Nash-Sidney Crosby pairing was broken up for the first time, the Columbus winger now with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the monster mash unit and the Pittsburgh captain now centering Eric Staal and Jarome Iginla.
"It's three big guys that finish our checks, so it should be a good line," Nash said. "Obviously Mike is trying to get a spark out of us guys and trying to find some chemistry. It's going to be a different style line, more straight lines and forecheck."
Crosby also took the changes in stride.
"That's what you are going to see in a short tournament like this, different combinations to see who works with who," Crosby said. "Besides Joe's line [the San Jose trio], which has been together all year, it's a pretty safe bet that they are going to find chemistry early. For the other three lines, it's juggling to find that, and I think that's normal."
The players looked loose in practice Monday, but you know they can't possibly be oblivious to their hockey-mad country looking for some national therapy right now.
"I don't think playing at home has affected them terribly," Yzerman said. "They're pretty calm and pretty comfortable in there. Again, in three games we've played very well. The only thing that hasn't happened is the puck hasn't gone in the net the last two. They're generating chances, they're getting shots.
"These are good people that really want to do well and they want to make Canada proud. They're trying hard."
There are 14 Stanley Cup rings on Canada's roster. That clutch, championship experience now needs to be drawn upon.
"Well yeah, and everyone forgets that everyone is in the same position, everyone has to win now," Crosby said. "So it doesn't matter what you've done the last three games, whether you've won them or lost them or whatever the case is. Everyone is in the same situation. It's whoever is going to be able to deal with it the best and be their best at the right time that's going to win. That's the situation we face.
"And with the group of guys, like you said, that have been through so many things in the past, I think we're all confident we can be our best when we need to."
Eight years ago at this precise juncture, Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky delivered his famous "us against the world" speech. Your humble ESPN.com hockey hack offered Yzerman the same chance Monday near the end of his news conference, telling him that other teams in this tournament are taking great delight in Team Canada's stumble and asking whether he felt that would galvanize his team.
No chance. Yzerman didn't take the bait.
"I'm not surprised," Yzerman said. "We cheer when other countries lose, too. With the importance in the country and the passion the country has for it, for some of these countries to come in here and play well, they're really excited about the challenge. They want to come in here and beat us. I'm not surprised by that at all."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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