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sábado, 27 de fevereiro de 2010

Canada Advances, but Struggles With Slovakia


The New York Times

Canada 3, Slovakia 2
Canada Advances, but Struggles With Slovakia
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Shoving between Canada’s Shea Weber and Slovakia’s Michal Handzus brought down the net over Roberto Luongo. More Photos >


By JEFF Z. KLEIN
Published: February 27, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — For Canada, it came down to a single play in the final moments. If the puck went one way, it meant a trip to Sunday’s Olympic gold-medal game against the United States. If it went the other, it meant a trip to overtime and possible humiliation against Slovakia.

Pavol Demitra found himself with the puck at the side of the net with 10 seconds left. He fired, and the shot hit Roberto Luongo, the Canada goalie, in the glove as Luongo fell forward. The puck deflected into the air, tracing a tantalizing arc across the face of the goal. It did not go in.

“I hit it so hard and somehow it hit his glove,” Demitra said afterward. “That was a huge save.”

The game ended with the crowd at Canada Hockey Place roaring in celebration and Luongo declaring the game “the most fun I have ever had.” But Team Canada’s 3-2 victory was not an impressive one.

It was far less convincing than the Americans’ 6-1 demolition of Finland earlier in the day. The Canadians’ record is also less convincing. It includes a loss and a shootout victory, compared to Team USA’s perfect 5-0 record; the Americans have never trailed in any game here.

And then there’s Canada’s 5-3 loss to the United States in both teams’ group-stage finale last Sunday.

“When we played the U.S. last time, it was early in the tournament and we didn’t get off to a great start,” said Canada forward Jarome Iginla. “They jumped on us early. I definitely give them credit for the last time they played us, when they came out and had a brilliant first period.”

On Friday, the Canadians jumped to a 2-0 first-period lead on scrappy goals, both on deflections, from Patrick Marleau and Brenden Morrow. They increased it to 3-0 on a second-period power-play tally from Ryan Getzlaf, who swatted the puck in backhanded while kneeling.

They controlled roughly 40 of the game’s first 50 minutes and never looked troubled by the Slovaks, who could barely make it into the Canadian zone. The Slovaks’ prospects looked even dimmer after Marian Gaborik limped off late in the second period and did not return.

But Canada could not put the tenacious Slovaks away. With 8:25 left, defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky barged in on Luongo and snuck the puck past him when Luongo left some space against the post. That started the Slovakian comeback bid.

With 4:53 to go, Michal Handzus swept Richard Zednik’s rebound past Luongo and made it 3-2. That set up the frantic finish.

Luongo barely stopped Marian Hossa and Demitra, Luongo’s Vancouver teammate, on successive shots with 2:44 left. He needed a kick save to stop Tomas Kopecky seconds later.

The Slovaks had the puck trapped in the Canadian end for the entire final minute. Canadian defenders dropped like ninepins to block Slovakian shots, with defensemen Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty falling in front of particularly dangerous drives.

Finally it came down to that play with 10 seconds left. Luongo got just enough of Demitra’s shot to preserve Canada’s thin margin of victory.

“It was a good thing we had a three-goal cushion,” Canada defenseman Chris Pronger said. “That third period isn’t the way we want to play.”

The fans were still roaring when the teams lined up to shake hands. Luongo and Demitra embraced and spoke. Luongo was beaming. Demitra was not.

“I didn’t know it was him originally who had that shot,” Luongo said. “Then I realized I made the save on him. So it was even nicer, because I can tease him about it once it is all said and done.”

Slovakia goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped 25 of 28. His mask bears the images of Vladimir Dzurilla, the great Czechoslovakian goalie who shut out the Canadians by 1-0 in the 1976 Canada Cup, and Juraj Janosik, an 18th-century Slovakian outlaw who, like Robin Hood, gave to the poor what he robbed from the rich. But Halak could not quite rob the game from the Canadians.

The Slovaks had trouble getting out of their own end for most of the game. Their biggest threat, the Rangers sniper Gaborik, was given no room to maneuver by Team Canada defensemen.

The Canadians played a physical game, but they answered with some heavy hitting from the 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, the tallest athlete at these Winter Olympics, who flattened Morrow and Iginla.

Slovakia’s previous best Olympic finish was fifth place, not bad for a nation that didn’t become an independent entity until 1993. At these Games it will finish ahead of its more glamorous neighbor and former partner, the Czech Republic, and has logged victories over Russia and the defending Olympic champion, Sweden.

“We played with heart; we desired; we wanted,” said Jan Filc, the Slovakia coach. “We were not lucky in the end.”

Slovakia will play Finland for the bronze medal on Saturday. But no matter the outcome, the Slovaks have established a place among the top hockey-playing nations.

Sunday’s Canada-United States final will be a rematch of the 2002 gold-medal game at Salt Lake City, the last time the Olympics were staged in North America. Canada beat the United States by 5-2 in that final, which wasn’t decided until the Canadians scored twice in the last four minutes.

In a more immediate sense, Sunday’s gold-medal game is a rematch of the first Canada-United States contest at this tournament. Ryan Miller was brilliant that day, stopping 42 of 45 shots, while Canada’s Martin Brodeur turned aside only 18 of 22 and lost the job as Canada goalkeeper.

“We were too easy on Miller last time we played him,” Canada Coach Mike Babcock said. “We won’t be this time.”

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