Wednesday, September 8, 2004
Canada able to hit the switch
By Scott Burnside Special to ESPN.com
TORONTO -- It wasn't so much that Team Canada brushed aside Slovakia with all the disdain of an elephant disposing of a bothersome gnat, but it was the manner in which the disposal was done that added depth to the 5-0 victory.
Mario Lemieux doesn't have a goal in the World Cup, but to this point Canada hasn't needed one.
In advancing to the World Cup of Hockey semifinal Saturday night against a resurgent Czech Republic squad, Canada first displayed patience and dedicated defense. Then, as though an invisible switch had been thrown, put on an offensive display hitherto unseen by a squad that had already established itself as the standard bearers for excellence, pouring four goals past the Slovaks in less than 12 minutes of the second period.
"It's fun when you see very talented guys show discipline on defense to create those opportunities that they did," head coach Pat Quinn said. "Then it opened up quick and they made good, smart plays. That was beautiful to watch for anybody that loves this game. I hate to say it, but as a coach, you get a little bit of a sense of relief there but you sure don't want your players to feel that same way. You'd like them to feel the urgency of having to play 60 minutes."
This was not grind it out, win ugly hockey, the kind that is seen so many nights in so many NHL rinks.
This was men versus boys in a talent-flexing exercise.
Each of the five goals featured a blend of dazzling passing, shooting and skating.
It is this notion that Canada may not yet have hit its stride, may be capable of more, of better, that provides a daunting challenge to first the Czechs and beyond that the winner of Friday's other semifinal between the U.S. and Finland.
The final is Tuesday in Toronto.
In the hours before Wednesday's quarterfinal contest, much was made of the fact that a number of "big guns" hadn't produced offensively.
Mario Lemieux had one assist.
Linemate Jarome Iginla had zero points.
Vincent Lecavalier had three assists but had yet to score.
When it was over, the notion that Lemieux or Iginla or Lecavalier might feel any undue pressure because they hadn't scored in three essentially meaningless preliminary games, all victories, seems laughable now.
It's laughable because when facing their first elimination game and ever cognizant of the pitfalls of single-elimination competition, (memo to Sweden: must check the fine print on big-stage tournament rules) those players delivered their best.
Lecavalier and Iginla scored their first tournament goals 2:58 apart early in the second period, setting the stage for goals by Ryan Smyth and Joe Sakic 19 seconds apart later in the second frame to emphatically dismiss the Slovaks.
Lecavalier raced to the net and was greeted by a sensational pass from Tampa Bay teammate Brad Richards and then would return the favor, fluttering a wonderful backhand pass to Smyth for the third goal.
But this night belonged to effervescent Iginla and his two linemates, one of whom is already in the Hall of Fame (Lemieux), and the other who seems certain to join him (Sakic).
"That's the payday for the good work they've been doing," Quinn said of his top-line.
Iginla would add a second goal in the third period, ripping a wrist shot past backup netminder Rastislav Stana, and Lemieux, who was credited with the first goal but immediately told Iginla his pass had deflected off a Slovak defender not Lemieux, added two assists.
"They're very easy guys to play with," Iginla said of linemates Lemieux and Sakic.
"You know, I still battle it, not being a little bit in awe there. They're so down to earth. They're so positive. You come back, you miss, they pat me on the back and sometimes I could use that when it's getting pretty tough there. And it's something I'm just trying to go, just trying to go to the net. Just try and play very simple with them.
"On Joe's goal. What a pass by Mario there. Backhand between two guys. He didn't even look up. It was right on my tape. I was just going, going to the net."
Slovak coach Jan Filc called a timeout after the fourth Canadian goal and lifted starting netminder Jan Lasak, replacing him with Stana.
Filc might as well have raised a white flag.
The Slovaks managed 23 shots on Canadian netminder Martin Brodeur, who earned his first international shutout.
After, Slovak defensive anchor Zdeno Chara would shrug his massive shoulders.
"They were protecting that lead very, very well. We didn't put 60 minutes tonight. Maybe 20, 30 minutes."
This was a Slovak team that entered the tournament with high expectations but was left crippled by injuries and a serious lack of depth on defense and in goal.
Still, they loomed as the misstep that would have plunged an entire nation into a funk.
Now that first test has been passed.
Lemieux acknowledged that it takes a lot of pressure off that even on a team laden with stars, the biggest stars don't have to produce every night.
"We know it's not a one-line team or a two-line team," Lemieux said. "It's the four lines that are good to go on the ice and help us achieve our goal which is to win the gold medal."
As Canada prepares for a rematch of the 1998 Nagano Olympics semifinal with the Czechs, Lemieux still doesn't have a goal.
But who's counting.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.