Team Canada’s debut in the 2004 World Championships courted disaster Sunday, as the Canadians had to battle back in the third period, salvaging a 2-2 tie with a surprisingly successful Austrian team.
Canada which stumbled through the first two periods had to deal with an Austrian strategy of perpetual icing, a strategy that paid off dividends with two goals. Andre Lakos opened up the scoring for Austria with a deflected shot off of Willie Mitchell that eluded goaltender Roberto Luongo. The Canadians went to the dressing room outshot 10-4.
The confusion of the first held over into the second, as the Austrians took a two goal lead when Thomas Vanek scored three minutes into the period. The Canadians finally shook off their lethargy and began to take the game to the Austrian squad as the second period came to an end. Still they trailed by 2 goals but they were beginning to get more quality chances on Austrian Goaltender Reinhard Divis, who plays for St. Louis in the NHL.
With the thoughts of previous opening game miscues on their minds, the Canadians finally got on the scoreboard at 10:36 when Vancouver Canuck, Matt Cooke broke the shout out bid. Dany Heatley put in the equalizer at the fifteen minute mark. The Canadians continued to press and nearly took the lead as the game was winding down, Divis making a number of saves to secure the tie.
Canada has had its problems in the opening game of the World Championships in the past; last year featured the Danish surprise, when Denmark played Canada to a tie. In 2000 Team Canada lost to lightly regarded Norway.
To be fair to the Canadians they appeared to be just what they were, a team thrown together just starting to get to know each other. Many of the teams players are just arriving in Czechoslovakia after their NHL teams were eliminated from the playoffs. Team Canada also had the added distraction of having Head Coach Joel Quenneville hospitalized due to exhaustion. He has been put under sedation for the last two days, awaiting approval to travel back to North America for further treatment. His duties turned over to Mike Babcock who went from Assistant coach to Head coach in 24 hours.
Canada plays their next game on Tuesday when the take on France, wrapping up the preliminary round on Wednesday against the Swiss. That gives Babcock one day of practice to introduce everyone, rebuild the playbook and get settled in himself. While a tie against the Austrians might not be a welcome result, it could serve a purpose for the team. The first game should give the players something to focus on, the idea that every game is important and that all teams will be bringing their best efforts when they play Canada.
The chances of them remaining flat and disorganized will be reduced now that the uncertainties of the coach’s health have been resolved and the additional players have been added. For Canada the wake up call should be the only one required, the players know what the job at hand is all about. They just have to get themselves organized and go out and work in defence of their World Title, knowing full well that every country will be trying to knock off the champs.