It's our game to lose

TURIN, Italy -- Late last night and well into the early morning, Pat Quinn and his coaching staff went to work on finding a way to salvage this Olympic hockey tournament for Team Canada.

It isn't going to be easy.

Turin wasn't built in a day -- and time may well be running thin for Canada's gold medal hopes.

Time, Team Russia and a bevy of yet unsolved flaws happen to be the Canadian enemy, all within an accentuated and frenetic time frame.

Through five round-robin games, including an uplifting yet revealing 3-2 win over the Czech Republic yesterday, there have been few signs, few real moments, few indications that this team has grown into what it could become.

In the many months of lead-up talk, debate and optimism, no one ever talked about elimination before the medal round.

Not one talked about a team of so much talent finding a way to score goals in only two of its past 11 periods.

No one talked about a team with so much experience in international hockey suddenly playing the big-ice game as if it has never played it before.

There was going to be a gold-medal game and Canada was going to be in it and that's just the way things were meant to be. Except now, heading into today, there are more questions than answers. There is bravado in players' words but doubt in their play.

This is Canada vs. Russia, a rivalry once great, a rivalry about to revived for at least one day.

Now we are down to hockey at its most basic element. A best-of-one. A kids tournament playoff being played out in the Olympics by the best in the world.

A mid-afternoon reason for all of Canada to stop and watch hockey. Offices will close early. Production will come to a halt. Hope and resolve, the great Canadian traits, will be the order of the day. The reality, though, will be determined at the Torino Esposizioni arena.

"We've got to be a better team," coach Pat Quinn said, not hiding behind the victory over the Czechs, which came down to goaltending and only slight improvements in other areas. Martin Brodeur was spectacular. Tomas Vokoun was spotty and pulled after the first period.

Yesterday a game of little meaning was played; today the game means only everything. Until tomorrow.

Today Canada can be eliminated without gold, silver, bronze or any real excuses. Or the opposite.

"I'm not sure where we are as a group," said Quinn, who looked for more from this team after five games. "We're going to find out (how good we are)."

He's anxious to know. Wayne Gretzky, the executive director, is anxious to know. Canadians need to know.

Fix own problems

"This is what you play for," said Brad Richards, who scored the game's first goal yesterday on a shot that almost never would beat Vokoun.

The strategy for Quinn and his impressive staff is not to find a way to stop the Russians. You can't do that when you are out of practice time, when there are no days between games, when the Olympics are improperly and impossibly scheduled.

The strategy, Quinn said, is to find a way to fix their own problems. And there is a long laundry list from which he has to work.

The only real area of strength to date has been goaltending. The rest of the Canadian game has been left open to dissection.

The players, most of them experienced, most of them winners in other tournaments and other places, seem almost foreign to each other. They were better yesterday, just not good enough.

They will have to be that much more improved today. The challenge is there. The challenge is enormous.

Quinn already has benched Rick Nash, will have to do the same with defenceman Bryan McCabe and will need to find life from stars such as Joe Sakic and Jerome Iginla, who have been so silent here.

"This is where the tournament starts," said Richards, the most noticeable of the Canadian centres.

This is where it starts. Or ends.

"It's our game we have to worry about," Chris Pronger said. "It's always our game."