VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Hockey Night in Canada moved from Saturday to Sunday this weekend, as the hockey-crazed Olympic host nation put everything on hold for 2 1/2 hours to watch Canada face off against the United States in the most anticipated event of these Games thus far.
The stacked Canadian team, burdened with the gold-medal expectations of the entire country, was up against the carefree, inexperienced U.S. squad on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. The game lived up to the hype with an electric atmosphere and a frenetic pace that probably had NBC executives second-guessing their decision to show ice dancing and skicross instead.
But a 5-3 U.S. victory is not what the hometown fans had in mind, and shellshocked Canada will be feeling more blue than red Monday morning as the final week of the Olympics begins.
A Brian Rafalski slap shot from above the faceoff circle 41 seconds into the game gave Team USA an early lead and hushed the raucous Canadian crowd and its ear-piercing "Go Canada Go!" chants. From that moment forward, it seemed the Canadians were on their heels, and the young U.S. team never trailed.
"Obviously, having the lead most of the game kept the crowd out of it," said Rafalski, the 36-year-old Red Wings defenseman, who scored again to give the United States a 2-1 lead at the first intermission. "We know we can beat anybody now. It's a huge step for the confidence of our players."
Chris Drury broke a 2-2 tie late in the second period, and captain Jamie Langenbrunner added an insurance goal to make it 4-2 in the third. And that goal proved key.
Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby gave the crowd a glimmer of hope, knocking in a goal to make it 4-3 with 3:09 remaining. The noise was deafening over the next few minutes. But U.S. goalie Ryan Miller, wearing a shamrock on his mask in honor of Jim Craig's mask during the 1980 Olympics, held steady. Any thoughts of a Canadian miracle were dashed with Ryan Kesler's empty-net goal with 44.7 seconds to go.
When the buzzer sounded, the U.S. players hugged at one end of the rink, and the Canadian players watched in disbelief. The three goals by Crosby, Dany Heatley and Eric Staal were not enough.
"We just kind of ran out of time there," Crosby said. "It's one game and you run into a hot goalie now and then, and we had some bad luck early on."
It was the first U.S. win over Canada in men's Olympic hockey since 1960, and it advanced the U.S. to the quarterfinals. Canada needs another win to move on.
The pregame party had begun Saturday afternoon, when hundreds of thousands of fans clogged downtown streets. Buses and cars tried, unsuccessfully, to part the red sea of revelers. Worried things might get out of hand, city officials ordered liquor stores to stop selling alcohol at 7 p.m., four hours earlier than usual.
They were contemplating doing the same Sunday night, which was probably a wise decision, because fans leaving the hockey game would likely be seeking to drown their sorrows with Molson Canadian — or something stronger.
Canada's Olympic committee spent $100 million on its "Own the Podium" program, aimed at topping the medal chart. That looks less and less likely, so Canadians are hanging all their hope on the hockey team. From the moment executive director Steve Yzerman named the roster, Canada's hockey stars have been feeling the heat.
Though it was just a first-round game, tickets were going for as high as $2,000, and media members had to apply for special tickets because of the demand for spots in the 500-seat press tribune. The game was expected to break every TV viewing record in Canada.
Thousands of fans gathered to cheer on Canada on jumbo screens at Robson Square downtown and in Whistler Village.
Canadian flags hung from the balconies of high-rise buildings on the edge of Chinatown, home of Canada Hockey Place arena. More than 90 percent of the fans pouring into the arena wore replica Canadian jerseys, and they were waving maple leaf flags big and small nearly an hour before game time. Some wore red sirens on their heads. Some wore red and white umbrellas. Many wore the now-hard-to-find red knitted Olympic mittens.
As if Canadian fans needed any more riling up before the game, a video of Canadian gold-medalist freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau and in-house interview with him sent them into a frenzy.
But their mood changed in after Rafalski's first goal.
As the dejected Canadian fans left the arena, the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop" blared through the speakers. Don't stop, it'll soon be here, the lyrics say.
Maybe so. But not soon enough for anyone around these parts.