TORONTO – Perhaps the time has finally come, at least after he led the 2016 World Cup of Hockey with five goals, to graciously strip Brad Marchand of the “Little Ball of Hate” label famously yoked to him by President Barack Obama more than four years ago. Might we suggest, inspired by his miraculous, last-minute shorthanded strike in Thursday night’s 2-1 win for Team Canada, the Little Ball of Fate. Or, owing to his ensuing celebration—arms whirling and legs leaping like the winger wanted to fly—the Little Ball who Elates.
Or perhaps we should simply settle for the image of Marchand behind the microphone in the Air Canada Centre media room, sitting next to captain Sidney Crosby, laughing and smiling and smelling like beer, no longer the pest that everyone once judged him…
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s still a pest.”
Fair enough. Marchand did, after all, also lead the World Cup with eight penalty minutes. But for someone who joined Team Canada seeking to shed his reputation for agitation, or at the very least tack some straight-laced legitimacy onto it, scoring the title-clinching goal over Team Europe should suffice. (The eight-year, front-loaded $49 million extension he signed Monday with Boston, the day before the final began, probably helps too.)
“Yeah, I think the whole thing has been a bit of a whirlwind,” Marchand said. “When you come into a tournament like this, you’re just trying to take everything in. It’s the biggest stage in the world right now, and to be a part of it is an incredible honor…I’ll cherish every second of this for the rest of my life.”
Start with precisely 43.1 seconds left in regulation of a 1-1 game. The Canadians had already lurched through two periods by then, bogged down in the neutral zone by Europe’s stifling backcheckers. In the opening frame, they had been held scoreless for the first time this tournament, outshot for the second straight game, and already trailed for five times as long (13:34) as they had in their previous five games combined (2:41). “They were playing a really stingy game,” said Patrice Bergeron, who alongside Crosby and Marchand formed Canada’s top line. “The guys in the middle wanted us to get frustrated, not give us the speed we wanted. It was working in their advantage.”
Then came the gifts, wrapped to please a home crowd growing increasingly anxious over a potential Game 3—and Canada’s first international best-on-best loss since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. First, European captain Anze Kopitar was whistled for holding Corey Perry behind his net, a critical call over which coach Ralph Krueger later bit his tongue. “We’d seen many situations like that throughout the game,” Krueger said. “That certainly was the turning point.”
Only because of what followed. As chants of CAN-A-DA crested, defenseman Brent Burns dropped onto one knee and whistled a snap shot from the blue line. Pivoting to his left and facing goaltender Jaroslav Halak, Bergeron somehow tracked the shot onto his stick, raised at chest level. The puck plunged toward the ice and zipped past Halak’s blocker side, breaking Canada’s scoring drought at 57:07.
Sixty-three seconds later, though, defenseman Drew Doughty whacked Tobias Rieder with a high stick behind the Canadian net, putting Europe on a power play. The tension returned. Roman Josi dinged the post. Leon Draisatl found Marian Hossa in the near slot, and Hossa almost squeezed the puck through the armpit of goalie Carey Price. It almost worked. “A hell of a save, obviously” said Babcock, the same coach who presided over Canada’s Olympic wins in Vancouver and Sochi. “Guys were yelling on the bench, it’s coming back, it’s coming back. It’s unbelievable, but he just does what he does.” (Price’s 32 saves suggest this happened often Thursday.)
And then Marchand did what he has increasingly done: score. Last season, his 37 goals ranked sixth in the NHL, one ahead of tournament teammates Crosby and Steven Stamkos, despite notching only six on the power play, and his four shorthanded goals were tied for third league-wide. At the World Cup he and Bergeron, teammates in Boston, clicked instantly with Crosby, combining for 25 points in six games. So when Jonathan Toews and Jay Bouwmeester led the shorthanded rush, crisscrossed in the slot, drew the attention of three European defenders, and parted for Marchand, Bergeron found himself thinking, “It’s going in.”
Concerning that whole cherishing business, continue onto when 2.9 seconds remained. The puck was headed back into the European zone, the result of an offside call that hardly mattered, so the celebration began on Canada’s bench. Head pats, hair tousles, bear hugs, Marchand stood at the center of it all. Crosby, the scoring leader in the tournament, would win MVP honors. Price, with only seven goals allowed in five games, once more proved his worth as the world’s best goalie. But in that moment all attention focused on Marchand, the Little Ball who was pretty damn Great.