Here in Canada we are a nation in mourning today. No, Team Canada wasn't eliminated from the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament, but as we watched Corey Perry casually skate back for the puck and Ryan Kesler smack the puck into the empty net a collective groan went through the nation as we realized our bitter rivals from across the border had beaten us.
The gold medal game is still a week away, but yesterday's game was just as important to Canadians, who wanted a dominant performance over an established hockey power heading into the elimination round. In a lot of ways Team Canada delivered, and perhaps deserved a better fate, but ultimately the game was decided the way games often are at any level of hockey: by goaltending.
Quite simply, Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur was badly outplayed by his Team USA counterpart Ryan Miller in yesterday's game. Now, I'm not among those who are criticizing Brodeur's play as horrible. He made a couple of mental mistakes, and had some bad puck luck. However, his play could certainly be described as average, and average simply isn't good enough in a single game elimination tournament like this one.
Miller, on the other hand, was brilliant, making a plethora of incredible saves as the Canadians swarmed Team USA's net. When the final buzzer sounded, Team Canada had outshot the American team by a 2 to 1 margin, yet it was the American squad celebrating victory. Miller wasn't the only reason for the victory, but he certainly played a large role, something required of a goaltender if a team is going to capture a medal in this tournament.
Brodeur's mediocre performance leaves Team Canada coach Mike Babcock in an unenviable position heading into Tuesday's game against Germany. Does he give Brodeur, a 3 time Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, and the winningest goalie in NHL history a chance to redeem himself? Or does he turn to Roberto Luongo, hometown hero, and a phenomenal goalie in his own right?
Team Canada coach Pat Quinn faced a similar choice back in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City when starting goaltender Curtis Joseph had a mediocre game against Team Sweden. Quinn made the decision to change things up and threw Brodeur in for the next game. Brodeur won the game, and then continued the rest of the way, back-stopping Canada to a gold medal. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it might be Brodeur who is forced to watch his countryman pick up the torch and run with it.
Naturally, with the Olympics being held in Vancouver, the same city where Roberto Luongo plays his NHL hockey for the hometown Canucks, the cries are loud to have Luongo replace Brodeur. Luongo was solid, if largely untested, in Canada's opening game against Norway, pitching the shutout as Canada romped to an 8-0 victory. However, the pressure has increased a hundred-fold since that opening game, and Luongo certainly doesn't have the experience in high pressure situations that Brodeur does.
The question is a tricky one for Mike Babcock and his coaching staff, and no matter which goalie they choose they'll be second guessed relentlessly should Canada get bounced from the tournament before reaching the gold medal game on Sunday. Such an occurrence would be absolutely crushing to the nation, though it is a very real possibility as Canada has a tough road just to reach the game. Tomorrow they will play a German squad who would love nothing more to play giant killer. On paper it looks like an easy victory for Canada, but that is what we thought about the game against Switzerland as well. Assuming Canada beats the Germans they would have to face the offensive explosive Russian team the following night. Russia is loaded with stars like Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and Semin and is Canada's oldest hockey enemy.
Ultimately to claim gold Team Canada will have to win 4 games in 6 nights against some of the greatest hockey teams in the world. With their loss to the U.S. has certainly left them in a deep hole and it is going to take a hot goaltender to get them out of it.
In my opinion Luongo should get the call for Tuesday's game against Germany, and if he turns in a great performance tomorrow he should be the man down the stretch for Canada. If he is shaky, but Canada still manages to win then Babcock can always go back to Brodeur for the quarterfinal game against the Russians.
It is frequently said that great teams need to face adversity before they become champions. If that is true then Canada has certainly endured enough to motivate them going forward. Come Sunday we will know whether or not it was enough to bring home the gold.
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