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Canada changes national tone with a convincing rout of Russia


Near the end of the first period, the game, stunningly, was already out of reach. Still, the shots kept coming. Still, the goal-horn kept blowing: Morrow, Weber, Perry. Who predicted this? There went shellshocked 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?

Who imagined that they'd lead by as much as five goals, crush Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinals of the 2010 Winter Olympics, leave hockey's most dangerous man -- for the first time, really -- looking utterly beaten?

Yes, Canada has played big in big games before. Yes, they won the '87 Canada Cup over the USSR, too, and -- in the contest some consider the greatest of all time -- dominated the opening period in Game 2 to take a 3-1 lead. But the Soviets came back to tie that one, and they didn't even come close to doing that Wednesday.

In the ultimate must-win contest at their home Olympics, Team Canada bullied Russia at Canada Hockey Place, bullied the same Ovechkin who the other day crushed Jaromir Jagr with as intimidating a message-hit as you'll ever see, bullied the most high-octane of opponents like it never has before.

"Never," said Saskatoon's own Bill Hay, who helped win Chicago's last Stanley Cup championship in 1961 and is now chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame, from his seat in the stands. "Never have we seen this."

What did we expect? Anything but what we got. Canada and Russia were the two favored teams in this Olympic tournament and, with impressive tuneups over Germany and the Czech Republic, respectively, both seemed to be rounding into nearly equal form. But if anything, Russia seemed a bit sharper, was certainly more rested than the Canadian squad that was upset by the USA on Sunday, its lineup of stars seemingly ready to showcase the quicksilver talent that made it the most feared of all opponents coming in.

"They're so ----ing fast," Team Canada associate director Doug Armstrong said of Russia, in a CTV documentary aired just before the Olympics. But, almost as if reminding himself, he also said, "Everybody's worried about defending the Russians," and then pointed to the names of the big Canadian wingers scrawled on a whiteboard -- 6-foot-4 Rick Nash, 6-foot-4 Ryan Getzlaf, 6-foot-3 Corey Perry, 6-foot-4 Joe Thornton, 6-foot-3 Dany Heatley -- and said, "Try defending against these monsters."

Within two-and-a-half minutes on Wednesday, the panicked Russians knew they couldn't. The big wave started. Getzlaf took in Dan Boyle's perfect backhand feed to draw first blood, and Ovechkin and Co. never recovered. "They came out," said Russia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who replaced Nabakov with the score 6-1 early in the second, "like gorillas out of a cage."

That was the plan, too: Crowding scoring threats like Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin, harassing them with a fierce and constant back-checking pressure. "Play them hard," said Canada goalie Roberto Luongo. "We didn't want to give them room to skate and make plays. We knew they like to play a lot of one-on-one situations."

But rarely do plans work out so well in the execution. "We were right on 'em every time," Luongo said. "They couldn't really do much."

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As had been the case nearly all tournament, the Russian power play proved mysteriously listless. Malkin had his best chance of the night with just 4:18 to play, when Luongo stuffed his wide-open shot driving down the slot. Getzlaf was seen on the arena JumboTron yapping in Malkin's ear after that, earning a lame elbow to the chin. "He ran at a few guys there late in the game," Getzlaf said, grinning. "And I was just getting in his face a little bit."

Ovechkin, the NHL's top scorer and consensus best player, ended the night -2, with derisive chants of "O-VIE!" ringing in his ears. Symbolically enough, he twice had to scramble to replace a broken stick, and it's a measure of his luck on Wednesday that, when he stabbed once at the puck with his right hand, during the third period, he ended up on the bench grimacing and trying to ice the pain away. And when it was all over, Ovechkin tried, laughably, to convince the world that he wasn't shattered.

"We are still strong," he said. "They were simply better-tuned than we were. We are practically at the same level, but today they had more focus."

But, of course, no one today will be talking about Canada and Russia being at the same "level." The rivalry is such that each win is considered a titanic victory against the most respected of enemies, which in Canada's case means a wholly satisfying rejoinder to Russia's quarterfinal win in Torino four years ago. But to achieve that in front of a home crowd, to notch perhaps the most emphatic win in a series that Sidney Crosby called an "amazing atmosphere" is almost more than the Canadian players -- and people -- could hope for.

"We always talk about Canada-Russia rivalry, but you feel it more than ever in this building," Crosby said after. "We all responded well to that; we came out hard and energized and part of that is the crowd. But we went after it from the start."

As for the win's place in his ongoing personal rivalry with Ovechkin? Crosby smiled when the subject came up, but told reporters, "it's up to you to decide." But you can bet that most will place Wednesday's blowout in the same category as last spring's Game 7 flameout by Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in their second-round series against Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins, the eventual Stanley Cup champs.

"We won a quarterfinal game; it happened to be against Russia," Crosby said. "It was a great battle for us, we won it that game. We'll move forward."

But with Wednesday's win, Team Canada did more than move into Friday's semifinal game against Slovakia as the heavy favorite. It also gave the host nation true ownership of these Olympics for the first time. Prior to Wednesday, Canadian media, athletes and fans had been self-critical to the point of self-immolation; the accidental death of the Georgian luger, the glitches at the opening ceremony, the failure of Canadian athletes to "Own the Podium" -- not to mention the struggle of the men's hockey team to completely rise and rule -- had imbued Canada's games with a near-constant tone of apology. All that has now changed.

Winning men's ice hockey, reasserting Canada's primacy in its national sport, is the No. 1 goal of these games -- and everyone knows it. "Hockey is Canada's game," said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday night. "Now: It's pretty obvious it's the world's game, but we still think it's ours and I'm a bit of a redneck and so I think it is ours ... We try to prove on a regular basis it's ours.

"There's no guarantees: You've seen in all these games it's a fine line. All we've done now is set ourselves up with a chance. We like our team and we like our opportunity. There's pressure on us because we feel we have a chance."

No, there's even more pressure now because Canada has just declared itself, emphatically, as the world's best. Success -- and not just a gold medal, but the way Canada will forever view these entire Olympics -- now sits in Team Canada's hands. It's theirs to have and to hold. It's also theirs to lose.