VANCOUVER -- The reputed best goaltender in history was the second-best goaltender on the ice on Sunday as Hockey Day in Heaven turned into sheer hell for Martin Brodeur.
U.S. goalie Ryan Miller badly outplayed Brodeur in Team USA's 5-3 victory over Canada, turning the Olympic hockey tournament on its ear. For hockey's homeland, the event was supposed to begin in earnest in the quarterfinals. Now, though, there is an unscheduled detour through Germany on Tuesday in a win-or-go-home game before Canada can secure its berth in the quarters. (Canada is already home, but, well, you know.) And assuming Team Canada does make Weisswurst out of the unfancied Germans, then the so-called dream final of Canada vs. Russia actually would be a quarterfinal match, just as it was four years ago in Turin, when Canada slunk out of the tournament.
When -- if? -- Canada plays Russia, Brodeur likely will be the best goalie ever to open and close a bench gate. Coach Mike Babcock was circumspect about the identity of his goalie against Germany. Dipping into football-coach mode, Babcock, the straightest of straight shooters, said he would have to look at the videotape on Sunday night. This probably won't flatter Brodeur, who couldn't look worse in slo-mo than he did in real time against the swift and feral Americans, who beat Canada in the Olympics for the first time since 1960.
Brodeur inherited Canada's Olympic net at Salt Lake City in 2002 after Curtis Joseph lost the tournament opener to Sweden, a move that sparked a Canadian revival and a gold medal. That victory offered a new perspective on Brodeur, who stepped out of the shadow of the New Jersey Devils and into the limelight. Now, at age 37, he will have to cede his place as Joseph once did if Team Canada is to pull a nation of 33 million out of a funk deeper than Corey Perry's after Team USA's Ryan Kesler out-willed, outhustled and outmuscled him to a free puck to score the clinching goal into an empty net.
Babcock has two other goalies on the roster but only one other choice -- Roberto Luongo. Marc-André Fleury essentially is an Olympic tourist who graced the bench as a backup against Switzerland but never really has figured in the plans. This is a pity. Fleury actually has won something significant, the 2009 Stanley Cup. (Remember his last second save on Nicklas Lidstrom?) He also reached the 2008 final, a nice line in anyone's curriculum vitae.
But the likely choice will be Luongo, greeted by the usual cheers of "Loooo" from Vancouver fans when he was introduced before the game. Luongo took pride of place in net for the opener against Norway last Tuesday, mostly to get Brodeur into a natural rhythm of Thursday-Sunday games. Luongo shut out Norway, but then again, one of those wooden planks with five holes cut out might have done almost, as well.
Luongo was a disaster in the second-round playoff series against Chicago last year and has a meager portfolio in pressure games, although he did successfully sub for Brodeur in the 2004 World Cup semifinals. In retrospect, that tournament might be viewed as Brodeur's last grand triumph. He has been a marvelous accumulator in the ensuing years -- he will own most NHL goaltending records when he finally retires -- but his Devils have won two playoff series since the lockout. Last spring, Carolina rallied to beat the Devils in a Game 7 in New Jersey with two late goals in a span of 80 seconds, a Brodeur meltdown as embarrassing as Luongo's mess against the Blackhawks.
On Sunday, in a game in which Canada outshot the U.S. 45-23 and had about the same 2-1 ratio of gilt-edge scoring chances, the blame has to be placed squarely on Brodeur's shoulders. Or more correctly, his feet.
Brodeur's feet always have been his Achilles heel, if you'll pardon the expression. Because he employs the butterfly less than almost any modern goalie, he can be vulnerable to shots along the ice -- something that former Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski knows all too well. Rafalski has four goals in 57 games for the Detroit Red Wings this season. He has four goals in three Olympic games for Team USA. He had two against Brodeur, both skittering shots along the surprisingly poor ice surface at Canada Hockey Place.
The first goal, 41 seconds into the game, came from the point. Indeed, Rafalski had so much time to tee it up, he could have counted the American flags in the crowd. The shot wound its way through a thicket of players, including Sidney Crosby, and beat Brodeur low to the stick side.
Some 8½ minutes later, Brodeur was again the master of his own misery. He is the best puck-handling goalie ever to play, but baseball is not his sport. He took a full swing at a puck and knocked it directly to Rafalski a full stride inside the blue line, testament to Brodeur's warning-track power. Rafalski again kept the puck low, but this time Brodeur chose to stack the pads in a move that was as old-time as it was ineffective. Brodeur looked particularly graceless on the goal, like a man who has reached his best-before date.
Maybe the juxtaposition to Miller put Brodeur's 18-save performance in a bad light. Then again, the glow of a red light rarely flatters.
Miller was almost bulletproof, more athletic and even more unflappable than Brodeur, who has spent his life majoring in sangfroid. The Buffalo Sabres goaltender flashed a glove to foil Jarome Iginla on a power-play wrist shot with less than four minutes left. And after Team Canada closed to one goal about 40 seconds later, Miller withstood a furious stretch of 80 seconds during which the Americans couldn't clear the zone.
"If you have a one goal lead with two or three minutes to play, that's a matter of will," U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson said. "So you give me a one-goal lead, and we have Ryan Miller? Well, I'll take my chances against any team. Ryan? He's the best goalie in the world. He was absolutely phenomenal [Sunday]."
If Miller is truly the best goaltender in the world, it follows that Brodeur must abdicate the title he has held, almost by default, since Patrick Roy retired.
And if Canada is going to realize what it still thinks is its manifest destiny, the estimable Brodeur is going to be watching from the bench.