Saturday, September 11, 2004

Too close for Comfort

Disaster was averted Saturday night by Vincent Lecavalier, as the Tampa Bay Lightning star scored in the first period of Overtime, sending Canada on to the final of the World Cup of Hockey. Lecavalier allowed Canadians to breathe again, when his shot went top corner left, to finally put away a Czech Republic team that refused to quit.

Prior to Lecavalier’s heroics it was finger nail chewing time for Canadians from coast to coast to coast and all environs abroad, as the never say die Czech Republic squad battled back time and time again to bring things to a tie in the highly energized and entertaining match in Toronto. The Canadians would take a lead, the fans would begin to celebrate only to have the Czechs fly down the wing and score a reply before the Canadian scoring announcement would be finished.

For a good portion of the game the Czechs had the Canadians on their heels, sending wave after wave of the likes of Jagr, Hejduk, Rucincsky and Havlat, all of whom made life difficult for Roberto Luongo. He entered the tournament after Richard Brodeur was unable to play due to an injury to his wrist, thus the Florida Panther was sent into battle in the do or die semi final. Luongo faced 40 shots from the Czechs, who outworked the Canadians for long stretches of the game. And while a couple of the goals were unfortunate in their time frame, Luongo very much kept his team and his country in the tournament. His performance Saturday, most likely saved scalpers in Toronto from taking the worst bath in financial history since the great depression of 1929. Without Canada in the final, the price of a World Cup ticket would have tumbled faster than an Enron stock after the arrest warrants were issued.

Luongo faced shot after shot turning them away one after another, sending his team mates back up the ice to try and put this thing away. In any other game most of the Czech chances would most likely result in a goal. But Luongo found a way to keep them out, much to the joy of the capacity crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

No save was bigger than in the overtime period when he stared down Milan Hejduk and deflected a sure fire goal into the corner. It was head manned up the ice by Dany Heatley, ending up on Vincent Lecavalier’s stick, a few seconds later it was behind Tomas Vokoun and Canada was on to the final Tuesday night with a 4-3 victory.

Pat Quinn admitted that his team was fortunate to come out of the game with the victory, realizing that his team did not have its best game on the ice Saturday night. The Czechs must be hugely disappointed with the result, they were quite close to sending the Canadians to the sidelines, sometimes it’s worse to lose a game you should have won than to be blown out, this is the feeling the Czech players must have today.

Canadians respect hard work and in the Czechs on this Saturday night there was an awful lot to respect. Considering the way they entered this tournament; with the tragedy of their coach’s death, the discord in the dressing room and some early games that showed a less than hearty interest in the games at hand this one game more than made up for their past troubles. It was a performance that announced when the Czechs want to play; they can play with the best and possibly be the best in the world.

For Canada the near death experience may serve as the best possible wake up call imaginable. They must know that they barely advanced to the final, with the Finns rested up and waiting for the Canadians, concentrating on correcting the breakdowns of the semi final is an urgent requirement. After the game, Pat Quinn disclosed that he didn’t like the way they practiced the last few days and the result today hammered that point home nicely. More attention in their own end and getting back to a forceful fore-check will be the key to success on Tuesday night. Expect Quinn to remind his charges just how close they came to exiting this tournament early.

Hopefully for Canadian hockey fans, Saturday night will be the only surprise of this tournament. A near miss that would have shocked Canadian hockey fans across the land.

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