By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; D01
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. This is what they demanded during their beloved hockey team's humiliating reality, a must-win play-in game Tuesday against Germany, when they chanted "We want Russia!"
They weren't kidding around. Team Canada, so rattled after losing to the United States in pool play Sunday, pole-axed the talented Russians, 7-3, in a quarterfinal game Wednesday evening at Canada Hockey Place. The Canadians will face the winner of Wednesday night's late game between Slovakia and Sweden in the semifinals Friday.
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. Ovechkin was certainly a focal point, both for the crowd, which booed him during introductions and every chance it got, and for the Canadians, who hit him so hard and so often that Ted Leonsis probably had difficulty getting out of bed this morning. But neither of them had a point.
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. That isn't always the case in Olympic play, where teams usually get only one or two practices before pool play begins.
As the score grew lopsided, and poor Evgeni Nabokov was spirited out of the goal and into the Russian version of witness protection -- he certainly witnessed a killing -- the tension that has gripped this country for three days slowly melted, like the snow at Cypress Mountain. You could feel the collective exhale of an entire nation (someone had garlic for lunch). Even the guy with the "Hockey is Canada's Game" sign finally sat down, much to the relief of the rest of the fans, who know that, for Pete's sake.
As hard as a loss would have been to swallow for Canada, it will be just as hard to choke down for the Russians. They are not doing as well in Vancouver; they won 22 medals in Turin but just 13 here so far, and no gold medals in figure skating, which is a bit of an upset for their vaunted program. Failing to win a medal in hockey -- with some of the game's biggest stars on the roster and former great Vladislav Tretiak serving as GM -- will be a blow to the country that will host the Olympics in four years.
Desperation is a rancid cologne, but a great adrenaline. Canada's national schadenfreude after Sunday's loss to Team USA was almost too painful to watch; an elimination in the quarterfinals, on home ice, would have been unimaginable. And to Russia? Bridges, chair lifts and pharmacies were put on high alert.
Canada had faced Russia (in its various political configurations) nine times in Olympic hockey prior to Wednesday's quarterfinal, and won just once -- in 1960, at Squaw Valley, Calif., where the United States won the gold, Canada silver and the Soviet Union the bronze.
The Canadians had dominated Olympic hockey since the Games began in 1924. In the first six Olympics, Canada won five gold and one silver medal. And then came the Soviets, who joined the party in 1956 with what amounted to professional players, and the tables turned. Canada was not surprisingly annoyed, and even boycotted the Olympic tournament in 1972 and 1976 because of the amateur issue.
In 18 Olympic appearances, Canada has six gold, four silver and two bronze medals, and six times has finished out of the medals. Russia, in 14 appearances, has eight gold, two silver and two bronze medals and has twice finished out of the medals. Neither team performed well in Turin four years ago; the Russians finished fourth, Canada seventh.
The best team leader ever to wear the "C," former Red Wing great Steve Yzerman, is Team Canada's general manager, and he's had his hands full. The trouble with living in the country that invented the game is that each of your citizens believes he knows more about hockey than all the others. When forward Ryan Getzlaf scored the first of Canada's four goals in the first period, Yzerman had to be smiling. He drew fire for putting the Ducks forward on the roster despite a high ankle sprain.
After the loss to Team USA, Canada Coach Mike Babcock made some line moves, teaming Crosby with Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal on the first line and replacing Martin Brodeur in goal with local hero Roberto Luongo, who plays in this arena for the Vancouver Canucks. When Luongo stopped a tremendous breakaway opportunity by Evgeni Malkin with about four minutes remaining, the hometown crowd went nuts.
And then a new chant began: "We want Sweden!"
Those Canadians -- full of demands.