THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

With nation on edge, Sidney saved the day

With the weight of a nation no longer on his shoulders, Sidney Crosby got a just reward from IOC president Jacques Rogge. With the weight of a nation no longer on his shoulders, Sidney Crosby got a just reward from IOC president Jacques Rogge. (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 1, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - International Olympic Committee president Dr. Jacques Rogge and International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel moved left to right, alternately placing the gold medals around the necks of the victorious Canadians.

When Dr. Rogge reached the last man, he gestured to the crowd, as if to say, “OK, let’s hear it. Here’s your saviour.’’

And with that he placed the final gold medal on No. 87, Sidney Crosby.

In the matter of Truth vs. Fiction, it is always advisable to take Truth, plus the points. So how could anyone be surprised that in an hour of monumental national need, the 22-year-old wonderchild with the 42-year-old head blasted the puck past the quasi-impregnable Ryan Miller at 7:40 of overtime to give his homeland the gold medal that, for millions upon millions of Canadians, was worth more than the other 13 put together?

It was the perfect ending to a spectacular week of Canadian athletic triumph. Canadians had skated, snowboarded, and slid their way to podium after podium, but the partying would not have been half as joyous had the men’s hockey team failed to win gold on home ice, and it would have been doubly disastrous had their squad lost to the impudent upstarts from the USA.

The Americans made them work for it, tying the game with 24.4 seconds left in regulation. With goalkeeper Miller pulled, Zach Parise scored a six-on-five goal that equalized things after the Americans had fallen behind, 2-0, at 12:44 of period two. You want to talk about quieting a building.

Losing after being up, 2-0, would have been unthinkable, and losing after being within 25 seconds of victory would have been beyond devastating. This is when a team has to rely on more than mere talent.

“We’ve got so many guys who have been in Game 7s and have won Stanley Cups,’’ said Eric Staal. “We knew how to handle it.’’

The obvious plan was to attack, attack, attack, and we’ll worry about any quick transitions or odd-man rushes when the time comes. Jarome Iginla had a chance. Scott Niedermayer had a chance. Patrick Marleau had a chance. Dany Heatley fired an absolute bullet, and so, too, did Rick Nash, who was omnipresent all afternoon.

But Miller, who would have to be regarded as the tournament’s most consistently outstanding player, stopped them all. Until he didn’t.

Crosby wasn’t feeling all that great at the time. He had not been capitalizing on scoring chances for a few days, and he had failed to score on a breakaway with about 3:15 remaining in regulation, being caught from behind by a hustling Patrick Kane (“The fastest I have ever backchecked in my life’’), who got his stick on Crosby’s to prevent any kind of a shot from being launched.

But given one opportunity in OT, Crosby didn’t miss. He fired from Miller’s right, the red light went on, and the national partying could begin. For the record, young Sidney said he never saw it go in. But 37 million, give or take, of his fellow Canadians did.

So, had the Canadians won? Or had they simply not lost? It’s hard to tell.

The signage said it all. Amid the predictable “Our Gold, Our Game,’’ and “Hockey Is Canada’s Game’’ signs was this one: “Someone Offered Me $50,000 For The Seat, But I Am Canadian, Eh?’’ You think that guy came to Canada Hockey Place to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner?’’

It turns out the Americans did the Canadians a favor last Sunday by beating them. It meant Canada would be forced to play another game in order to reach the medal round, and what the Canadians needed was time to figure themselves out as a unit. They dusted off Germany, 8-2, and we now know it actually meant something. With roles better established, the Canadians came out roaring in the quarterfinals, sending the Russians home with a 7-3 thrashing. In just three days the Canadians had transformed themselves into a much more cohesive unit.

The country was down on them the morning after the loss to the US, but by yesterday morning it was as if that game had never happened. All the hockey-mad nation knew was that it was the gold-medal game, it was on Canadian soil in the home rink of an NHL team, and these guys had damn well better win the game.

The players knew what was going on out on the prairies and up in the Northwest Territories and in the Maritimes and in the big cities of the East and up and down the province of Quebec. Our game. Our sport. Skating is nice and, boy, we can flip and twist and spin with the best of them, but this is hockey. This is Us.

“There was definitely pressure,’’ acknowledged Staal. “But the coaches and management did a really good job of putting us in a position to win. The emphasis was for us to get better as a group, and that’s what we did. We got better with each game.’’

“We focused on what we could control,’’ agreed Crosby. “And that was getting better as a team. Even in the game we lost to the US, I thought we played pretty well [outshooting the USA, 45-22]. But we kept getting better.’’

No one needed an OT, and, for sure, no one needed a shootout. But when you’ve got the latest living legend on your side, you shouldn’t worry. You just get ready to pop the cork.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.