Friday, February 22, 2002
Canada beats Belarus for chance at gold
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- It's been a long, cold half-century of Olympic failure for hockey's most devoted nation, but Mario Lemieux and his Canadian teammates are one game away from ending it.
Steve Yzerman keyed Canada's attack with an early goal and two assists, and Lemieux had two assists in a 7-1 victory over Belarus in the hockey semifinals Friday.
The Canadians' most complete win of the Olympic tournament put them in the gold medal game on Sunday -- 50 years to the day after a club team called the Edmonton Mercurys won Canada's last gold in Oslo.
It's impossible for the Canadian team to think about its challenge without the weight of history -- and they wouldn't want it any other way. Canada's collection of NHL millionaires, most of whom make their livings in the United States, never allow home to stray far from their thoughts.
"We have the chance right now to do something special for our country," Lemieux said. "We are proud Canadians. Hockey is our sport back home. ... It's something we can all cherish for a long time if we win a gold medal."
It has been an intolerable drought in a nation where hockey is the national passion -- but on the heels of the women's team's victory, Canada could end up with two golds in four days. Canada will face the United States, which beat Russia 3-2 later Friday.
"Somehow, in Canada, we expect more," coach Pat Quinn said. "If it's anything but gold, it's failure. That's certainly not the approach that anybody should take with the Olympic spirit and motto, but that's the way it is. I'm sure our guys will be thinking about those kinds of things."
Belarus, a qualifier with one NHL player, made the semifinals with a 4-3 upset of Sweden Wednesday. But the magic ran out against a determined Canadian team that made the undermanned Belarusians look feeble, outshooting them 51-14 and dominating play for nearly every minute.
Plucky goalie Andrei Mezin, who stopped 44 Swedish shots, was pulled in the second period when Canada took a three-goal lead.
"Coach did the right thing when he pulled me out," Mezin said. "I might have killed myself if I gave up another five or six goals. They're a great team. So many great players."
Eric Brewer, Scott Niedermayer, Paul Kariya, Simon Gagne, Eric Lindros and Jarome Iginla also scored for Canada, while 14 players got at least one point. Martin Brodeur improved to 3-0-1 as Canada's starting goalie with 13 saves.
Canada started slowly in Salt Lake City, with just one win in its first three games amid cries of panic back home. But the Canadians felt their team jelled during the hard times -- and a fortuitous draw in the quarterfinals paved their way to the gold medal game.
While heavyweights Russia, the Czech Republic and the United States battled each other, Canada faced only Finland and Belarus.
"In the big picture, we realize this can do a lot for our country," forward Michael Peca said. "We got off to a slower start than we wanted, but internally, we knew what our objectives were. We stayed strong, and now it's paying off for us."
Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky's us-against-the-world tirade, which sounded strange at the time, apparently succeeded in taking some pressure off his players. Gretzky watched calmly from the stands as Canada dismantled Belarus.
"There was a bump in the road that maybe we needed to get us going," Brodeur said. "We were getting grief from everywhere, but it really helped us get together as a team."
Just over six minutes in, Yzerman's rebound shot flew under Mezin's arm for Canada's first goal. Canada dominated the flow of play from the opening faceoff -- but for a few minutes, Belarus again struck fear into a mighty opponent.
Belarus didn't even get its first shot until more than 10 minutes had elapsed, but its third shot -- a soft toss at the net by Anaheim defenseman Ruslan Salei -- somehow escaped Brodeur's glove and rolled into the net.
But that goal was the extent of Belarus' otherworldly luck. Brewer scored on a misplay by Mezin during 4-on-4 play late in the first period, and Niedermayer scored a power-play goal on a pass from Lemieux early in the second as Canada rolled away.
"It was important for us to win by a large margin and important for us to get off to a good start," Lemieux said. "We were able to score fast and get a two- or three-goal lead and relax and play our own kind of game."
As the closing seconds ticked away, dozens of Canadian fans joined arms and sang a swaying version of "O Canada" before erupting in cheers at the final buzzer.
"Canada was very good defensively," Belarus coach Vladimir Krikunov said. "I've never seen such defense from a Canadian team. It was kind of Russian hockey. I've never seen such a game from Canada."