Better. . .best yet to come?
TURIN--The overall performance was better, and about, oh, a dozen or so Team Canada players were demonstrably superior Tuesday in a 3-2 victory over the Czech Republic than they'd been in the previous four games.
And they'll need to all be a little bit better again in Wednesday's quarterfinal collision with Russia.
Yup, I'm almost certain these two nations have met more than once before in an important hockey game over the decades.
Tuesday, the noteworthy Canadian performances, began with goalie Martin Brodeur, acrobatic as Johnny Bower on the day, and continued with Tampa Bay centre Brad Richards, who scored the first goal of the game early in the first and was a calming, puck control factor for the black-and-red jerseyed Canadians at key points in the contest.
Funny how those guys with Stanley Cup rings seem to raise their games in the big matches, huh?
Brodeur, with three Stanley Cup titles and an Olympic gold medal in his personal treasure chest, allowed an iffy goal to Peter Cajanek but was otherwise spectacular despite suffering a worrisome injury during the game.
"He's a guy who is a captain without carrying the designation on his sweater," said head coach Pat Quinn Tuesday. "Everything says leader about him."
Jarome Iginla was feistier and more involved. Chris Pronger stayed out of the penalty box and scored a goal. Ryan Smyth has found a purposeful home on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis. With a lead that needed defending, Kris Draper finally had a role to play. Jay Bouwmeester was much, much more effective.
So after being shutout in two weekend games in which pretty much nobody looked good, even the fact the Canadians had to hang on to win the game by their fingernails shouldn't detract from the improvement in their performance.
But will it be enough, starting with Wednesday's quarterfinals?
"I'm not sure where we are," confessed Quinn. "We're going to find out, obviously. We're going to have to play."
If there was a negative side to the victory, it was that Canada was outshot 33-16, including 26-8 over the final two periods. Rick Nash, benched in the third period against Finland on Sunday, played only a handful of shifts, while Leaf defenceman Bryan McCabe continues to struggle to find his game while getting less than one-third of the playing minutes he usually gets in the NHL.
McCabe saved what looked like a sure goal by Ales Hemsky in the eighth minute of the second, but he took two penalties that simply weren't necessary and showed poor judgment.
Quinn had success grafting Shane Doan on to a line with Joe Thornton and Todd Bertuzzi in the place of Nash, mostly because that line continued to turn the puck over in dangerous place and needed Doan as a defensive conscience. With Doan, not Nash, that was the line that was on the ice in the final seconds when Canada confidently protected its one-goal margin.
After the game, assistant coach Wayne Fleming and goaltending consultant Andy Moog headed off to the Torino Esposizioni to scout Slovakia, a possible quarterfinal opponent at the time Canada's game ended, while Quinn, Jacques Martin and Ken Hitchcock stayed at the Palasport Olimpico to scout Russia and the United States.
Russia, as it turned out, was the team worth watching most for the Canadian coaches. They knocked off the Americans 5-4 with Maxim Sokolov in goal, but it'll be Evgeny Nabokov today.
Canada thus ended the round robin portion of the Olympics 3-2. The regulation win over the Czechs was their first in a decade after a shootout loss in Nagano eight years ago, a round-robin draw in Salt Lake City four years later and an overtime semifinal win at the World Cup of Hockey in 2004.
In the other quarterfinals, the Czechs and Slovaks meet in what promises to be a hugely emotional contest between the two portions of the former Czechoslovakia. The unbeaten, untied Finns take on the U.S., while Sweden plays Switzerland.
The winner of Canada-Russia takes on the winner of Finland-U.S.