We got what we wanted -- a gold-medal showdown Sunday afternoon between the United States and Canada, but it could have all gone horribly wrong for the host team -- and nation -- if not for some fortuitous bounces in the waning seconds of tonight's game, a way-too-scary 3-2 win by Canada over Slovakia.
For two and a half periods, this was actually not a very exciting hockey game.
Slovakia was sloppy, turning the puck over in its own end, unable to penetrate through the neutral zone and looking very much like a team just trying to hang on for dear life as Canada jumped out to a 2-0 lead 15 minutes into the game. And that second goal came after Miroslav Satan, chasing a puck deep in the Canadians' zone, took one look at Canadian defensemen Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty closing in on him and just peeled away from inevitable contact, seemingly unwilling to pay the price to try and make a play. The puck was quickly moved in the other direction, where Ryan Getzlaf made a nifty between-the-legs pass to Chris Pronger at the point. He blasted it and Brendan Morrow neatly tipped it past Jaroslav Halak.
The third goal was obviously going to be huge, for whichever team scored it. And when Getzlaf rifled in a gorgeous backhander late in the second period, collaborating with current and ex-Duck teammates Corey Perry and Pronger, the game seemed as if it was well under control. The goal, by the way, was Getzlaf's third of the Olympics. Not bad for a guy who was on the verge of being told to go home a fortnight ago because of a gimpy left ankle that turned out to be a non-issue.
The first 10 minutes of the third were relatively uneventful and the crowd had already started to chant "We want USA!" when the tone of the game dramatically changed. While Canada chose to play not to lose, Slovakia opened up and started to take more chances, exhibiting the more freewheeling style that allowed the Slovaks to upset Russia and Sweden on their way to this game.
Suddenly, there was the ex-King and current Edmonton Oiler, Lubomir Visnovsky, barreling into the Canada zone, firing a desperate, bad-angle shot at Roberto Luongo and exulting as it somehow squeezed by him. It was 3-1 with just over eight minutes to go.
Three and a half minutes later, there was Richard Zednik wrapping the puck around the net and out in front, where Michal Handzus, lurking on the edge of the crease just as he has done all season for the Kings, was in exactly the right spot to bat it out of midair for his third goal of the Olympics, cutting it to 3-2 with just under five minutes to go.
The final five was a blur of gasp-inducing chances for Slovakia. As the entire nation of Canada held its petrified breath, somehow, some way, the puck stayed out of the net. On one opportunity, with a gaping upper part of the net staring at him, Pavol Demitra didn't shoot. And when he did shoot with just seconds remaining, the puck caught the cross bar and skittered harmlessly away.
Oh yeah, the defenseman for Team Canada in the middle of all that chaos, cool, calm and collected, as usual? The kid. Doughty, the Kings' defenseman who suddenly and deservedly is being mentioned as a Norris Trophy candidate this season. A few weeks ago, Doughty's coach,Terry Murray of the Kings, was talking about how much the kid would benefit from this Olympic experience, how his game, maturity and overall approach would improve exponentially as a result of this experience.
Murray was right. But the good news is that he and the Kings aren't going to have to wait for this Olympic experience to take its affect on Doughty. It already has. He was great two weeks ago. Now, he's even better than he was before the Games. All you need for proof is to look at who's on the ice in any critical situation for Canada. Invariably, No. 8 is one of the guys out there on the blue line.
Doughty and his teammates dodged a bit of a self-inflicted bullet tonight. They won't get away with the same mistake Sunday against Team USA. No longer flying under the radar in their pronounced role as hated underdog, these guys think they may just be a team of destiny.
All you have to do is look back in Olympic hockey history exactly 50 and 30 years and realize they may just be right.