VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Sidney Crosby, not left at home this time, single-handedly prevented a coast-to-coast Canadian panic attack.
Crosby scored the only goal of a shootout in which a nervous nation hung on every shot, giving Canada a 3-2 victory over Switzerland on Thursday and avoiding a second inconceivable loss to the Swiss in as many Olympics.
Across Canada, there was a single response: Whew, was that close.
Canada, a huge favorite despite a 2-0 upset defeat to Switzerland in 2006 that ranks among the greatest in Olympic history, took a 2-0 lead early in the second and looked to be cruising. But the Swiss, with two NHL players to Canada's 23, came back to tie it on second-period goals by Ivo Ruthemann and Patrick von Gunten.
After a scoreless third period and five-minute overtime, the first three shooters for each team in the shootout failed. Crosby, denied as Canada's initial shooter, put a wrist shot past Jonas Hiller with his second attempt. The game ended when Martin Brodeur, the best goalie of his generation, stopped Martin Pluss' shot.
Crosby, who owns the NHL's best shootout percentage (75 percent, 6 of 8), wasn't certain he could shoot again until coach Mike Babcock asked if he wanted another chance.
"I said, 'Sure, I'll try,'" said Crosby, whose face was bloodied by an errant Swiss stick in the third period. "So I was looking forward to that chance and tried to make the most of it. It was one of those nights where he (Hiller) was in the zone and I just tried to keep it simple and find a spot and put it there."
Canada, helped by early goals from San Jose Sharks teammates Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, now faces a North American showdown Sunday with the United States (2-0). It's a game Canada must win to be assured of gaining the quarterfinals without needing an extra game in a newly added play-in round.
"My psyche was tough for me the whole game, knowing that it's a pressure game, people expect us to walk right through that team," Brodeur said. "At least getting the win like that is definitely nice."
It was, too, for Crosby. Back in 2006, an 18-year-old Crosby was judged to be too young for the Canadian team and got no closer to Turin than his TV set.
"I was home watching, probably like every other Canadian," Crosby said.
And probably like most Canadians did this time, too, considering the country's Olympics performance will be judged by how well its hockey team performs in these home-ice Olympics.
"It's probably not a bad thing for us to go through that kind of desperation and tight hockey like that because it's not going to get any easier as we move on here," Crosby said.
Hiller, magnificent throughout while making 44 saves, needed to be perfect in the shootout and wasn't. Without an NHL forward on its roster, Switzerland sent out Hnat Domenichelli, Romano Lemm, Roman Wick and Pluss, and none could get the puck past Brodeur, the NHL career victories record-holder.
"Going back to back like that (against Crosby) is tough," Hiller said. "I wish we had scored to make it a little easier."
Nothing was easy about this.
Maybe Canada should have taken note of the date: Feb. 18, the same as when goalie Martin Gerber — later dubbed the Shroud of Turin — made 49 saves against the Canadians at the 2006 Olympics and sent them to one of their worst defeats since the country invented hockey.
This upset would have been bigger. Canada is considered to be superior in all areas to the aging 2006 team that finished seventh in Turin, one place behind the Swiss.
"This team is way better than the team we played in Italy," Pluss said. "They skate better, they're younger, they're fresh and just the way they play."
With this game on Canadian home ice, a reconfigured team and a rollicking Canada Hockey Place bedecked from ice level to the top of the highest luxury suite in red and white, the feeling in Vancouver was it couldn't possibly happen again. Even if Swiss coach Ralph Krueger, a native of Winnipeg, promised a few weeks ago his club would be the "upset team" of Vancouver.
How right he nearly was. The longer the Swiss stayed in the game, the tighter the Canadians played.
"Oh, yeah," Babcock said. "I think there's no question. Pressure, if you don't drink it up, if you don't relish it and want it, is a great equalizer."
The Swiss, who finished fifth in their six-team group in last year's world championships, got some hope when Ruthemann's slap shot from the left circle deflected off the right post and into the net at 8:59 of the second.
The relentless Swiss lack name players, but they possess an exceptional work ethic and determination.
With 10 seconds left in the period, von Gunten's seemingly harmless shot from along the left wing boards deflected off Marleau's skate in front and past a helpless Brodeur, who was also in net in the Turin loss.
As the Canadians trudged to their dressing room, they suddenly found themselves taking on not only the Swiss, but the bad memories of 2006. Canada, favored to win only its second hockey gold in 58 years, certainly didn't expect to be in so precarious a position so early in the tournament.
A few fans waved banners reading "Believe," but many of the nearly 17,000 crowded into the Vancouver Canucks' arena were in near disbelief, even while optimistically chanting "Go, Canada, Go." In his private suite, Canada executive director Steve Yzerman looked more than nervous.
"In every championship I've been involved with, your team has to go through adversity and that's what we had here," Babcock said. "We were able to survive it."
The Canadians pushed and pushed to go ahead in the third, outshooting them 18-3 in the period and 47-23 for the game, yet they couldn't get it past Hiller until Crosby finally succeeded.
Long before that, Heatley skated to the net, kicked the puck to his stick and shoved it past Hiller at 9:21 for his third goal in two games, making it 1-0.
Heatley also had a hand — or, actually, leant his back — as Canada scored again in the opening minute of the second period after Yannick Weber got sent off a second time for hooking. Shea Weber's drive from the left point off a faceoff win deflected off Heatley's back to Marleau, who jammed it into the net.
"I thought at the beginning we were a little slow. The Canadian guys were all over us. After the second goal that made it 2-0, it could go either way," said Islanders defenseman Mark Streit, the Swiss' only NHL skater. "It could be 6-0. But we played hard, we didn't give up, we sacrificed, we stuck with our game plan and we came back."
Only this time, Canada did, too.