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Let's give 'em something to talk about

by Greg Inglis
Quarterfinal action at the Olympic men's hockey tournament Wednesday continued to provide as many twists and turns as the Sea to Sky Highway that links host city Vancouver to the alpine venues at Whistler. Canada delivered a stunning victory over Russia, Slovakia upset defending gold medalist Sweden for its biggest win on ice since gaining independence in 1993 and the United States and Finland survived cliff-hangers over Switzerland and the Czech Republic, respectively.

"If you're going to end a drought in sports, you might as well do it with style," writes Damien Cox of the Toronto Star in chronicling Team Canada's convincing victory. "Canada didn't just win its first Olympic hockey game against Russia in 50 years on Wednesday. It delivered a stunning performance that will resonate for years, particularly if the final four days of these wonderful Winter Olympics include two more victories.

"Quite simply, hammering the Russian Bear by a more-than-convincing 7-3 score not only eliminated one of Canada's most dangerous rivals, it reinserted Canada into the position it held when Wayne Gretzky lit the Olympic cauldron in the drizzle 13 days ago -- the favorite to win gold."

* "Who would have thought?" wondered Roy MacGregor in the Globe and Mail.

"The score a rout, the game more exhibition than exceptional, the two key personalities invisible, the skills on display ranging from breathtaking to beer league. But this country is at peace with itself -- finally, and even if only for the moment.

"The bounces went our way," Canadian head coach Mike Babcock said in a remarkable understatement. Bounces, pucks, hits, shots, checks, even line changes all went Canada's way last night, with a charged crowd pouring positive emotion down their team.

"It was a match that had been billed for months as the gold-medal showdown, the much-anticipated game happening instead -- thanks to Canada's problems in the preliminary round -- in the quarterfinals. The meeting had also been heavily advertised as an Olympic showdown between the game's two greatest players, Canada's Sidney Crosby and Russia's Alexander Ovechkin. It never happened."

* "Who predicted this?" echoed Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price.

"There was no stopping it. This big red wave came crashing down on the Russians Wednesday evening: One weapon after another, smart and tough, squeezing them for time and space. The big red wave kept rolling, playing less under pressure than with it -- welcoming it now -- pushed by the swell of pride from the thousands circling the ice and the arena and the city, too. Getzlaf, Boyle, Nash: The wave came at the Russians, pushed them under early, never allowed even the slightest bit of air.

"There went shell-shocked goalie Evgeni Nabakov. There went Alex Ovechkin, crumpled against the boards. Canada's national hockey team has won world championships, won an Olympic gold medal; it beat the mighty Soviets in Moscow in 1972. But on this big a stage, against this talented a team?"
* "The first period was without question the most emotionally-charged, dominant 20 minutes of Olympic hockey I have seen played by a Canadian team against a quality opponent since the NHL started going to the Olympics in 1998, stated TSN's Bob McKenzie.

"That was absolutely overwhelming, and one of the big reasons for that was because the young Canadians got the matchups they wanted, and they were able to step up and take away the time and space of Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the two offensive forces."

* "This is what Canadians have wanted, from the moment the cauldron was lit, from the awarding of the Olympics to Vancouver seven years ago, probably from birth," wrote Tracee Hamilton in the Washington Post. "What all of Canada had built into an Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby matchup -- the red-clad, hockey-mad fans gave the arena the look of Verizon Center during a Caps-Penguins playoff game -- instead turned into an eye-averting onslaught ... Not only were the Canadian goals plentiful, despite the Crosby drought, but some of them were works of art, tremendous displays of teamwork and crisp passing and anticipation."

* "This was a humiliation like few I've covered," blogged Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "Russia was supposed to challenge for gold. But nothing was stopping the Canadians in this game, especially in front of this electric crowd ... The US was able to take Canada's crowd out of the game 41 seconds in the other day, and they never let Canada have the lead. That would not be the case tonight for Russia. Canada scored early and kept coming, and the crowd kept getting louder and louder."

* Few among the Russian men's hockey team will escape criticism following its performance in Vancouver, including the coaching staff:

"The question that has to be asked after Russia's 7-3 loss to Canada in men's hockey is whether coach Vyacheslav Bykov was as out of sync as his players, writes Kevin Allen of USA Today. "Bykov didn't pull starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov until after he had surrendered six goals. Because Canada's energy level was enormous, it probably would not have mattered. But we will never know for sure. Canada coach Mike Babcock praised Bykov for bringing stability and discipline to the Russian program, and deservedly so. Under Bykov, the Russians have won back-to-back World Championships. He clearly knows what to do behind the bench.

"But I feel comfortable in saying that every coach in the NHL would have pulled Nabokov long before Bykov did. When it was 3-0, I was thinking he might do it just to change the look, even if he wanted to bring him back at the start of the second period. When you don't change goalies in the face of the pressure that Canada was putting on Russia at the time, it leaves the impression of surrender. Sometimes a new goalie comes in and makes a couple of big saves and it ignites the team."

* "Cinderella was hanging around Canada Hockey House on Wednesday, looking to walk away with a stunning Olympic upset," wrote the Vancouver Sun's Ben Kuzma on Switzerland's game effort in a 2-0 loss to Team USA.

* There were similar allusions from Wayne Coffey in the New York Daily News: "The Swiss-German word for miracle is wunder, and it almost came to pass here Wednesday afternoon at Canada Hockey Place, where a wild Olympic quarterfinal included two disallowed goals, a goal-light that lit up erroneously and enough anxiety-filled moments to last a five-ring lifetime."

* "For the longest time, this had the feel of one of those games," Mike Vaccaro wrote in the New York Post. "You know those games. In football, it's when you outgain the other guy by 400 yards. In baseball, it's when you leave 17 runners on base, a dozen of them in scoring position. And yesterday, in the quarterfinals of the Olympic ice hockey tournament, it meant that after one period, the U.S. had 18 shots on goal, Switzerland only 4. And after two periods, that advantage was 32-8.

"We were dominating play at both ends of the ice, everywhere except where it mattered, on the scoreboard," Zach Parise said later, shaking his head at the 0-0 score after 40 minutes. "We weren't panicked, but we were frustrated. It's hard not to be."

"Parise also thought to do something about it. Two minutes and eight seconds into the third period, with the U.S. eight seconds into a power play, Parise tipped a Brian Rafalski shot from the point, then watched it trickle between the right skate of Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller and the right post. Later, the Devil would add an empty-netter, providing the entire difference in a 2-0 win."

Olympic Gear * Team USA was widely praised for its play despite the close call.

"If anything, the United States' 2-0 struggle to slip past Switzerland in the Olympic hockey quarterfinals Wednesday was filled with glowing -- albeit hidden -- positives," wrote Dejan Kovacevic in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"Barely beating an opponent with two NHL players? No matter. The U.S. delivered its most complete effort of the tournament, including the upset of Canada, and got just enough scoring on left winger Zach Parise's breakthrough goal early in the third period and, later, his empty-netter. Squeezing only one of 43 shots past Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller? No shame there, either. Hiller was, as Swiss defenseman Luca Sbisa put it, "like a brick wall back there."

* Scott Burnside at also was impressed: "You can talk all you want about patience and sacrifice but until you see it, until you see players standing in front of shots, taking a hit along the boards to clear the puck, not panicking even when your Olympic tournament life hangs in the balance, then you don't really know if you possess those qualities.

"In the moments after the United States' 2-0 quarterfinal victory over plucky Switzerland, head coach Ron Wilson took his players straight to their dressing room and told them he was proud of them.

"This is a team about which much was unknown when the tournament started. Perhaps too young, too thin down the middle, too vulnerable along the blue line. Perhaps. Not all those questions have been answered but now, the Americans, the youngest team in the tournament, have answered enough to become something of a sensation instead of the afterthought most believed they would be at the outset."

* Columnist Mark Purdy extolled the virtues of Team USA in an open letter on front page of the San Jose Mercury News.

"Dear casual sports fans of America: If you have not been paying attention to your country's Olympic hockey team since 1980 in Lake Placid, now might be a good time to start."

While the underdog Swiss came tantalizingly close in the first quarterfinal, the Slovaks concluded the day with an historic triumph.

* "Behind the Blackhawks' Tomas Kopecky and Marian Hossa, Slovakia pulled off the biggest upset of the men's hockey tournament," wrote Chris Kuc in the Chicago Tribune.

"Kopecky scored the game-winning goal midway through the third period and Hossa contributed three assists as Slovakia upended defending Olympic champion Sweden 4-3 in the quarterfinals Wednesday night.

"It's an awesome feeling beating one of the favorites of the tournament. We went really deep, especially after Tuesday night's game (4-3 win over Norway). We didn't have as much energy as we would like to but we found a way to win against a strong team."
-- Team Slovakia' Marian Hossa, on defeating Sweden

"It's an awesome feeling beating one of the favorites of the tournament," Hossa said. "We went really deep, especially after Tuesday night's game (4-3 win over Norway). We didn't have as much energy as we would like to but we found a way to win against a strong team."

* "It's the biggest achievement so far in the short history of Slovak Republic," Slovak forward Miroslav Satan told the Associated Press' Larry Lage.

"The Slovaks will play Canada on Friday night in the semifinals for a spot in the gold medal game. Even with a loss, Slovakia will have its best finish since competing at the Olympics for the first time in 1994. The Slovaks finished fifth at the 2006 Games and have looked like medal contenders in Vancouver since their shootout win over Russia in group play."

* While the men's tournament takes a day off before the semifinals Friday, the women take center stage today with Canada-U.S. showdown for the gold medal.

"The women's gold-medal game will feature the world's two hockey powers. They are so evenly matched that it is folly to say which team is better," writes John Branch in the New York Times.

"But one element could make the difference.

"If it's one thing, it's who can handle the environment best," United States Coach Mark Johnson said.

"Can the American players handle the pro-Canada crowd?

"I don't know if they can or not," Johnson said with a laugh. "We're going to find out."

"Johnson, who was a hero of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, is among those who believe Thursday's game could be the best women's hockey game in history -- in Canada, for an Olympic gold medal, with a mix of women's hockey pioneers and next-generation talent."

* "It is the Stanley Cup final over and over again," Canada head coach Melody Davidson told the Globe and Mail's Matthew Sekeres.

"It is one of the best rivalries in sport, male or female."
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