CALGARY – Canada’s remarkable third-period rally fell one goal short of being the greatest comeback in international hockey history. But by virtue of the fact that it would have been monumental also shows the near impossibility of such a rally.
The most fascinating thing about a comeback is that one team dominates the first half of the game and the other team – somehow – turns the table and dominates the second half. What was peculiar last night is that Canada dominated much of the game.
Shots on goal by period favoured Canada throughout, 13-8, 22-10, 21-6, for a total of 56-24. The difference was that the Russians capitalized on Canada’s mistakes, converted their chances, and took advantage of mediocre goaltending from the Canadians.
At the other end of the ice, Canada could have had half a dozen goals in the first two periods but couldn’t bear down, couldn’t buy a break, and couldn’t rattle goalie Andrei Vasilevski. As a result, it was a 6-1 Russian lead nearly halfway into the third period.
And then a simple power play started a remarkable reversal of fortune for Canada. Dougie Hamilton made it 6-2 at 9:20 from in close, but the goal celebration was muted because the goal simply made the Russian rout a little less embarrassing.
When Jaden Schwartz scored 23 seconds later, however, the comeback was on, the team energized, the crowd sensing an historic moment. Russian coach Valeri Bragin called a timeout, but this added fuel to the Canadian fire by giving the players and fans time to dream. Two minutes later, Brendan Gallagher made it 6-4. Now it was almost a new game. Tying the game was now well within the realm of reality.
Another Brandon, this one Gormley, watched his point shot on the power play slip through traffic in front past a helpless Vasilevski. For 45 minutes of the game, this was the kind of shot that was blocked, went wide, or proved to be harmless, but now, with the comeback in full swing, it somehow went in. Now it was 6-5 with five minutes left to play still.
Desperate, Bragin did the unthinkable – he removed his goalie and inserted Andrei Makarov, who hadn’t moved for the better part of two hours. Vasilevski, who had played with poise and made big saves, all of a sudden looked so rattled that he had gone from being a four-leaf clover to a broken mirror in the blink of an eye.
Makarov was good and lucky, and bore down under pressure. Canada hit the post twice, had several heart-wrenching chances to tie, but at the final horn the Russians had won the game and the reality had set in. The comeback fell short. The game was over. Canada had been eliminated.
Comebacks at all other levels of international hockey have maxed out at four goals, and even these are rare. Oddly, many involved Finland. The only comeback of this magnitude at the Olympics came in 1988 during the 11th-place game. France blew a 5-1 lead against Norway but hung on to win in a shootout after the game was tied 6-6.
Only three times in World Championship history had a team rallied from a four-goal deficit, and Canada was involved in two of those. East Germany bust out to a 4-0 lead after only 4:40 of play in 1963, but Canada settled down and won easily, 11-5. In 1990, Finland was leading 4-0 halfway through the game when the Canadians scored three times in the last half of the second and three times in the third, winning 6-5.
Of course, most fans remember the great Sweden rally against the Finns at the 2003 World Championships. The Finns led 5-1 early in the second but Sweden kept chipping away, scoring five in a row and winning in regulation by a 6-5 score.
At the 1990 U20, Finland was leading the Soviet Union 4-0 midway through the game, but their opponents scored five in a row and it was the Finns that had to rally for a 5-5 tie.
In women’s hockey, comebacks are even more difficult. No team at any level (Olympics, World Women’s, U18) has rallied from more than three goals down.
And therein lies another amazing feature of Canada’s efforts last night. The game had less than 12 minutes left in it when Canada started its rally, by far the latest of any comparable attempt. In truth, Canada simply ran out of time. Had the score been a more manageable 5-1 or had Canada made it 6-2 earlier in the third, it may well have completed its comeback. As it is, the players can only rue what might have been – and prepare for the bronze-medal game on Thursday.