Vancouver, British Columbia — While Martin Brodeur made the four stops that counted, Sidney Crosby made the save of the day.
Crosby saved Canada’s home-ice Olympics from possible ruination almost before the long-anticipated hockey tournament had started, scoring in a shootout to prevent a second incomprehensible Canada loss to Switzerland in as many Winter Games.
Crosby was left off the much-older 2006 team that lost to the Swiss 2-0 in Turin, one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. Across hockey’s birthland on Thursday, 33 million Canadians were giving thanks Crosby was on this team following Canada’s close-escape 3-2 victory.
Even if, much like his team, Crosby needed a second chance.
Denied by Anaheim Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller on his first shootout attempt when he failed at a tricky backhand-to-forehand move, Crosby changed strategy the second time and simply threw a hard wrist shot at the net. It went it, making him the only one of the eight shooters — four for each team — to score.
Hiller was brilliant despite allowing early goals to San Jose Sharks teammates Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, making 44 saves and keeping a Swiss team whose forwards probably couldn’t make an NHL roster from being overwhelmed by Canada’s collection of all-stars.
“I just tried not to get too fancy,” said Crosby, who leads the NHL with a 75 percent shootout success rate. “The first one, I tried to make a few moves and he’s got quick feet and he played it real well.”
Asked why he sent Crosby out again so soon after he was stopped, coach Mike Babcock said, “We thought he had a look at him once and he’d get it the second time.”
And he did.
Back in 2006, an 18-year-old Crosby was judged to be too young and inexperienced for the Canadian team and got no closer to Turin than his TV set.
“I was home watching, probably like every other Canadian,” Crosby said.
Despite the Crosby-provided escape act, Canadians must be wondering how a team with 23 NHL players nearly lost for the second successive Olympics to a team with only two NHLers. A team that finished only fifth out of six in its world championship bracket last spring.
The pressure on Canada to win a gold medal at home has been described by U.S. general manager Brian Burke as “glacial, unrelenting.” These Canadians — only seven of whom were on the 2006 team — now know what that pressure feels like.
They’ll feel more of it Sunday against the United States in a game that will decide which of the two moves into the quarterfinals as one of the top-seeded teams. Only a gold will do in these games for Canada, and losing to the U.S. would make that very difficult to gain.
And the Americans are a lot better than the Swiss, who rallied from a 2-0 deficit by beating Brodeur twice for goals in the second period. The better the relentless Swiss played, the more Canada tightened up.
“Oh, yeah,” Babcock said. “I think there’s no question. Pressure, if you don’t drink it up, if you don’t relish it and want it, is a great equalizer.”
Brodeur came back with a scoreless third period and five-minute overtime, then halted all four Swiss skaters in the shootout, stopping Martin Pluss after Crosby scored.
Maybe Canada should have noted the ominous date: Feb. 18, the same as when goalie Martin Gerber — later dubbed the Shroud of Turin — made 49 saves at the 2006 Olympics to send the Canadians to one of their worst defeats since the country invented hockey.
This upset would have been bigger. Canada is considered to be superior in all areas to the aging 2006 team that finished seventh in Turin, one place behind the Swiss.
“This team is way better than the team we played in Italy,” Pluss said. “They skate better, they’re younger, they’re fresh and just the way they play.”
This team also has Crosby, who, at age 21 last spring became the youngest captain to raise the Stanley Cup when the Pittsburgh Penguins won Game 7 in Detroit. Eight months later, he’s trying to add a gold medal.
If Canada hadn’t won it, Canada might have dropped into a play-in round merely to reach the quarterfinals, and thus would have had a much more difficult draw.
“In every championship I’ve been involved with, your team has to go through adversity and that’s what we had here,” Babcock said. “We were able to survive it.”
Slovakia beats Russia in shootout
Pavol Demitra scored on Slovakia’s seventh attempt in a shootout and Jaroslav Halak made some big saves, lifting the Slovaks to a 2-1 win over Russia on Thursday night in a thriller at the Vancouver Games.
Two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin scored on one of three chances in the shootout for the Russians.
Marian Hossa scored midway through the third period to pull the Slovaks into a tie. Russia’s Alex Morozov had a goal early in the second period.
Ilya Bryzgalov stopped 31 shots through the overtime for the Russians, and Halak had 36 saves entering the shootout.
Slovakia had a 5-on-3 power play for more than a minute early in the third but couldn’t take advantage, and the Russians failed to score with an extra skater midway through the period.
Both teams looked tired in the overtime, leading to few scoring chances.