Who will play between the pipes for Canada in 2010?

The Globe and Mail

8/25/2009 8:24:59 PM

CALGARY - If the measure were taken on the very last competitive moment for each of the five goaltenders hoping to backstop Canada to a gold medal in February, the contest wouldn't even be close.

Step to the front of the net, Marc-Andre Fleury.

It was Fleury's remarkable diving, desperate block of a last-moment Nicklas Lidstrom shot - called "the Secret Service Save" in Pittsburgh - that gave the Penguins a Game 7 Stanley Cup victory over the Detroit Red Wings three months ago.

"It happened so quick," the 24-year-old hopeful remembered following Tuesday morning's practice. "I was just happy he didn't shoot low."

Fleury admits to watching the dying-seconds play over and over in slow motion this summer. He knows it is the moment that erased - or should have erased - all the doubts and "tough times" of his earlier career as a netminder.

He does not watch, obviously, the YouTube video of him clearing that puck in the dying moments of the 2005 World Junior gold medal game, when his goof clipped his own defenceman and bounced into the Canadian net to hand an unexpected victory to Team U.S.A.

But that's the way it is with goaltending in high pressure situations. Hero. Goat. Nothing in between.

It is, by far, the most significant decision that will be made by those evaluating the more than 40 players gathered for this Olympic orientation camp at the Pengrowth Saddledome.

"What pitching is in a short series in baseball," Detroit general manager Jack Adams once said, "goaltending is in the Stanley Cup playoffs."

There is no equivalent comparison, however, to what it can mean in Olympic play, where the final few games can come down to "win or go home" and the only prize that matters to Canadians, the gold medal, is decided by one, single game, not a best of seven.

It can go either way.

No Canadian hockey fan will ever forget, however painful, the performance of Dominik Hasek at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. In a shootout against a fabulous Canadian team, he stopped all five Canadian shooters to put the Czech Republic into the gold medal game against Russia, which he followed up with shutting out the Russian for the gold.

The Canadians had the best team, Czech star Jaromir Jagr said, but "we had the best goalie."

Traditionally, goaltending is considered a Canadian given - but not these Olympics. Some even feel that goal may turn out to be this Team Canada's Achilles five-hole.

The two leading contender for this most-critical position - 37-year-old Martin Brodeur and 30-year-old Roberto Luongo - did not finish their last real games with much distinction. Brodeur, the Canadian goalie for the 2002 gold medal win in Salt Lake City, had an uncharacteristic meltdown in his final match of the 2009 playoffs, when the New Jersey Devils netminder almost-incomprehensibly let in two goals in the dying seconds of Game 7 to allow the Carolina Hurricans to take their series.

"I'm fine with what happened," the NHL's winningest goaltender said Tuesday. "It's a bump in the road - and you move along. It gets magnified. I thought I played an excellent series and it all got overshadowed by those two late goals."

As for Luongo, he has for some time now been described as Canada's goaltender of the future, yet the pressure performance of the Vancouver Canucks captain remains a question - particularly so after allowing seven Chicago Blackhawks goals in the last playoff game he played.

Brodeur believes there is no cause for concern. "It has to be healthy," he says, that there are five gifted goaltenders competing for the top job come February - himself, Luongo, Fleury, Cam Ward and Steve Mason.

"It's a great honour for Canada to have so much experience in the goalie department," he says. "All five guys can play - you could put any of them in there."

True enough - but if they stumble, blame will be instantaneous and harsh. Brodeur and Luongo are considered virtual locks for two of the three positions, with Fleury up against Carolina Hurricanes' 25-year-old Cam Ward - who has a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe Trophy and a World Championship to his credit - and 21-year-old Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets, last season's NHL rookie-of-the-year and MVP of the 2008 World Junior championships.

It could, in fact, be more than five candidates, as no firm decision on any player needs be made before December - and no position in the game is as given to hot and cold streaks so much as the one who wears the largest pads.

Brodeur and Luongo brim with confidence, while Fleury has to ask what, exactly, the English word "swagger" means.

When he hears the definition he concedes that the Stanley Cup, and that stunning save off Lidstrom in the final seconds, were enormous confidence boosters for him.

"But to win the Cup," he cautions, "takes more than one save."

Same for the Olympics, of course - and yet, at some point in any conceivable gold medal match-up, it is still likely to come down to that one crucial save.

And Canadians would like nothing better to think that one save would be theirs.