VANCOUVER - OK, nobody saw that coming.
In one of the most hyped, heralded and anticipated hockey games ever played, Canada unleashed a devastating first-period attack Wednesday night to crush Russia, the defending world champions and in some people's minds, the gold-medal favorite, in a men's Olympic hockey quarter-final game.
In all, Canada scored six goals on 23 shots in just over 24 minutes to play to stun Russia's stylish, but on this night, badly overmatched men's team.
The defeat by a 7-3 final score sent the Russians home to await the start of the 2014 Games in Sochi, where the hope is they may even show up to play. Canada, meanwhile, moves on to the semi-finals Friday to face either the defending Olympic champions Sweden or Slovakia.
It was a game in which everything went Canada's way, from the moment the puck was dropped between Jonathan Toews and Russia's No. 1 centre Evgeni Malkin. Canadian coach Mike Babcock cobbled together a checking line consisting of Toews, Mike Richards and Rick Nash, with Nash drawing the task of shadowing Russia's all-world scoring sensation, Alex Ovechkin.
Nash had been Canada's most physical forward in this tournament and physically, the best equipped to go head-to-head against Ovechkin, who'd knocked the Czech star Jaromir Jagr right out of the tournament in an earlier game. But Nash was strong against Ovechkin all night - or as long as it mattered, which was probably no more than the early stages of the second period, by which time Canada had the game sealed and delivered.
Richards was just as good, hounding Malkin, a frequent NHL adversary in the Pittsburgh Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers' rivalry. Richards' play, to strip Malkin of the puck just inside the Russian blue line with Canada holding a 2-0 first-period lead, may have been the turning point in the game. Richards moved the puck up to Toews on a quick transitional play, who then found Nash breaking into the clear.
Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov committed two beats too soon on the play and was flat on his side by the time Nash buried a shot into the top half of the net.
Nabokov had an awful night and when he gave up a cheapie to Brenden Morrow in the final two minutes of the opening period, it seemed certain that Russian coach Slava Bykov would yank him for the start of the second period. Bykov didn't - much to his ever-lasting chagrin.
Canada scored twice more within the first 4:07 of the second to go up 6-1 and at that point, back-up goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov finally came in off the bench - too little, too late to save the Russians' medal hopes.
Canada also received a strong game from the newly formed line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Morrow, who accounted for four of the seven goals. Getzlaf scored the all-important opening goal; Perry counted twice in the second, to snuff out any possible hope of a Russian comeback. Getzlaf and Perry play in the NHL for the Anaheim Ducks, the team that made Nabokov's life miserable in last year's opening playoff round.
For Canada, the pattern of building and improving as a team throughout the tournament is standard practice in the Olympics' NHL era - the only concern usually is if they run out of time. As it turns out, playing an extra game in the qualification round against Germany one night earlier may have done them a world of good. That was the first time they started to get comfortable as a team, following a week of changes and experiments with line combinations, some of which worked, and others that didn't.
So Canada gets a day off now before resuming play and if it is Sweden that stands in its path, they will pose a real threat. The two teams haven't met since the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, when Sweden won in a walk.
It was hard to imagine the frantic pace of the wildly entertaining opening 20 minutes could be sustained - and realistically, from Babcock's perspective, the Canadians wouldn't have wanted it to anyway. Trading chances with the Russians is never a good idea - and it makes even less sense when you're holding a big lead. The third period developed into a grind-it-out NHL sort of game, perfectly suited to Canada's purposes.
The crowd at Canada Hockey Place had to content itself by mocking Ovechkin with the cry, "Ovie, Ovie" whenever the Russian touched the puck.
The test now will be to harness the emotion Canada had off the start and see if they can reach that fervor pitch again in time to play Slovakia or Sweden.
In 2006, when Russia won the meeting against Canada in the quarter-final, they fell apart in the final two games, failing to score in either the semi-final or the bronze medal game.
US men beat Switzerland 2-0
Vancouver - The US men's hockey team beat Switzerland 2-0 in the playoff quarterfinals Wednesday afternoon.
The game remained scoreless for the first two periods. Zach Parise scored on a power play early in the third period and again for an empty net goal with less than a minute to go.
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