Teammates root for one another to succeed, but when national cheering interests come into play, all bets are off. That will be the case when Team USA battles Canada in the much-anticipated finale of the 2010 Olympic tournament in Vancouver. Travis Zajac
normally centers Zach Parise
and Jamie Langenbrunner, who have enjoyed a very successful run for the undefeated U.S. squad seeking its first Olympic gold since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Parise had a goal and an assist, while Langenbrunner added a helper in the Americans’ 6-1 semifinal win over Finland on Friday.
Canada survived a last-second scare to overcome Slovakia, 3-2, in the other semifinal game.
Zajac has been pulling for his linemates to do well – until now. He admitted that he’d be rooting for Canada to secure its second men’s hockey gold since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. But he also appreciated how well Parise and Langenbrunner have performed on their line centered by Colorado’s Paul Stastny.
“Whoever you put with them at center, it’s going to be an easy job for them,” Zajac, a Winnipeg native, said. “You just have to get those guys the puck. They’re great on the forecheck, they create things offensively all the time. I’ve watched them and they were on the puck, they were skating, they were moving the puck – they were fine out there. It’s nice to see. Hopefully not against Canada, though.”David Clarkson
, who grew up in Toronto, has been one of the most vocal Team Canada supporters in the Devils’ dressing room. He stayed at AmeriHealth Pavilion on Wednesday to watch with teammates as the Canadians eliminated Russia in a 7-3 rout.
“My captain Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise
playing for the U.S., I’d like to see those guys do well up until the final game,” Clarkson said. “I also hope that Canada dominates. That’s just me. As a kid, I was born and raised that way, and that’s my country. As much as I wish them good luck, I hope Canada does great. If both teams make it, if that happens, I’ll definitely wear some of my Canada stuff to the rink to make some of these other guys mad.”
Langenbrunner notched the game-winning goal in Team USA’s 5-3 win over Canada in the preliminary round. But the focus now is on the final showdown.
Said Clarkson: “Being from Canada, we couldn’t be more proud. Hockey’s our life.”
If there is any bragging to be done after the Olympics, some of it will have to wait until after the break, when the Devils are together again. Patrik Elias
and Ilya Kovalchuk
, who exited the tourney with the Czech Republic and Russia, respectively, remained on the West Coast until the end of the Olympics. After two starts for Canada in the preliminary round, Martin Brodeur
has served as Roberto Luongo’s backup. Jacques Lemaire (Canada) and Tommy Albelin (Sweden) have served as assistant coaches.
The Devils resume the regular season at San Jose on March 2, when they open a three-game western swing that includes stops in Calgary and Edmonton.
What remains to be seen is the toll of Olympic participation. While most NHLers had some days off to recover from the regular season grind, Olympians have had little time to physically or mentally regroup. Instead, they have suited up for some incredibly high-paced games featuring the world’s elite players.Dainius Zubrus
doubts that well-conditioned athletes like Parise and Langenbrunner will have any difficulty at all. The Devils, who have 21 games remaining, hold a one-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division.
“Every team has a lot of good players, especially teams like the U.S. and Canada,” Zubrus said. “They have go-to guys, but the ice time is pretty evenly spread out. We’ll see how they’re going to come back, but Zach and Jamie are both in good shape. I don’t think we need to worry about any of that. Hopefully, they win something and mentally, they’ll be even more excited. Now that I have a U.S. passport, they better win.”
|Rolston and Scott Young wearing silver in 2002. |
But it’s not always easy to come down from all the intensity and the buildup of the Winter Games, said Brian Rolston, a three-time Olympian with Team USA.
“When you go there, it breaks up the NHL season,” Rolston said. “Then you come back into this with no break and you can have a little bit of a letdown. I think I did, but you get back into it, obviously. Our guys are elite players and they’ll be great players for us. It could also be motivating for those guys that got knocked out early.”
Rolston got his last taste of the Winter Games at Torino in 2006, when he potted three goals and an assist in six games. He has been impressed that the chemistry between Parise and Langenbrunner has carried over so well onto the Olympic stage.
“They’re the best line, there’s no question about it,” Rolston said. “Zach, he’s one of the best players in the League, and this is just another showcase for him. I don’t think he gets the recognition as much as he should. He’s not hyped as much as a lot of other guys get real hyped. If he was playing in a Canadian city he’d be on every billboard. He’s a special player. The thing about Zach is that he works so hard. You see a lot of skilled players that kind of float. He just works hard and I think that’s one of the reasons why he’s so successful.
“Jamie’s been a hard worker his whole career and that’s how he makes things happen. I’m happy for both of them and I hope they get a chance to win.”
Rolston is familiar with the pressure that Parise and Langenbrunner will be feeling on Sunday. The Flint, Mich., native was a member of the 2002 U.S. squad that lost to Canada in the gold medal game.
“It’s always disappointing being on the losing end, but at the end of the day, you’ve won a silver medal,” he said. “It’s almost more fun for the bronze medal team because they won the game, you know? When you go back and you see the Canadian team and how good they were. Brett Hull had said right after the game, ‘Listen, I’m pretty proud of this silver medal.’ It’s a special thing. To win a medal at the Olympics is great.”
Rolston thinks the goaltending of Buffalo’s Ryan Miller will wind up being the difference. Miller, who has had an outstanding tournament, became the first goaltender since Mike Richter in 2002 to earn a shutout at the Olympics when he stopped 19 shots to blank Switzerland, 2-0.
Miller then stopped all 18 shots against Finland, and will carry a shutout streak of 111:38 going into the gold medal game. It’s one game to decide one who leaves Vancouver carrying precious gold, and who comes home with stories of what might have been.
“It’s just the best players in the world and so much fun to play in it,” Rolston said. “It’s fun to watch as a fan. It’s just great hockey.”