Winter Olympics-Ice hockey: Roy shines as Canada polish off old enemy

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RON WILSON, coach to the United States ice hockey team, said before these Games that a goaltender could make all the difference in this competition.

On the evidence of yesterday's tumultuous clash between the United States and Canada at the Big Hat rink, Wilson was spot on. And that goaltender is Patrick Roy of Canada.

The man whom many believe is the best in the business faced 31 shots from the best players the United States could muster from the National Hockey League, and saved 30 of them. Four goals from 25 shots took Canada into the quarter-final knock-out stage, starting tomorrow, in pole position.

For the US team, which lost its opening match 3-2 to Sweden, a second defeat was not disastrous - results merely influence the quarter-final draw with all teams qualifying - but in terms of morale, and national pride, the hurt was hard to hide.

If you had to think of Roy in terms of British goalkeepers, your first thought would be Neville Southall. The French-Canadian has the same shambolic look and unlikely athleticism. But his reaction when the Americans pulled a goal back with just six minutes remaining was pure Peter Shilton - he took it as a personal insult.

Canada have three top-class keepers, and Roy did not make the team two years ago when they reached the inaugural World Cup final and lost to the United States, but his performances since he arrived here with the NHL brigade last week have established him as one of the Games' outstanding figures.

His piece de resistance yesterday came in the first period, when the United States had a 5-3 advantage for two minutes while Joe Sakic and Rob Zamuner sat in the sin bin for, respectively, slashing and holding. It turned out to be two minutes of target practice for the United States as they fired in seven consecutive shots on goal. Two hit the posts. Roy, blocking and diving, dealt with the rest.

The psychological damage to the US was already enormous when the penalty period ended, and then the two released prisoners immediately combined with the legendary Wayne Gretzky to give Canada the lead.

Sakic's pass appeared to have put Gretzky in with a shooting opportunity, but The Great One turned possibility into certainty by switching the ball gently to Zamuner for an easy score. It was a sweet cameo from the 37- year-old, who has more points for assists in the NHL than his nearest challenger has in combined points for goals and assists.

He had emphasised his commitment to the cause in the opening 10 minutes, when he was given a two-minute penalty for tripping. Gretzky in the sin- bin. As one observer remarked, it was like seeing Bobby Charlton sent off.

As the Americans' frustration grew, they resorted increasingly to the bodycheck and cross-check. For a few moments in the second period, they seemed intent on re-shaping the arena using Canadian bodies to hammer out the boards. But the Canadians, with their huge, baby-face killer captain Eric Lindros, were well able to look after themselves. ThroughoutRoy, eyes burning through his mask in their intensity, kept up a constant, head-bobbing monologue in his efforts to maintain concentration.

"What," someone asked, "are you saying to yourself out there?"

"Nothing really special," replied Roy, who speaks both English and French.

"What language was it in, then?"

"Today," Roy said, "maybe Japanese."

The two defeats have spelled out almighty jolts to American national pride in any language and the US face a tougher quarter-final match as a result.

"We know that the road to a gold medal probably runs through Canada," Wilson said. On yesterday's evidence, that road is a dead end.

The two nations meet again today, in the gold medal decider in the women's competition, and the portents for a good, clean sporting game are not good.

After their group match, where the Canadian world champions were beaten by the United States, there were accusations that some of the US players had goaded Canada's forward Danielle Goyette, who scored the first-ever Olympic goal for her country last week, over the recent death of her father.

The Canadian coach, Shannon Miller, is reportedly threatening to make the Americans pay for their behaviour.