In a match many considered a must-win for Canada, five men scored twice in a tournament-opening 11-7 victory over Brazil on Sunday at the FINA water polo Olympic qualifier in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Sean Spooner had a pair of goals in the first period and team captain Nic Constantin-Bicari, Aleksa Gardijan, Jérémie Côté and George Torakis followed, with the latter named man of the match. Gaelan Patterson also scored in the final quarter for a Canadian squad seeking its first Olympic berth since 2008.
"We played well as a team today," Gardijan told Water Polo Canada. "Our defence limited [Brazil's] chances and we were able to stay focused throughout the game."
Three of the 12 teams will secure a spot at the Tokyo Games this summer, joining Australia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Serbia, South Africa, Spain and United States.
Canada, ranked 13th in the world, is also facing No. 6 Montenegro, No. 8 Greece, Georgia and Turkey in group play at the week-long event. Greece and Montenegro, in no particular order, are expected to secure the top two spots in Group A, with two other teams also advancing to the crossover quarter-finals on Feb. 19.
WATCH | Canada strikes early, often to begin Olympic qualifier:
"There's a monumental difference between placing third or fourth in the group," CBC Sports analyst George Gross Jr. said earlier this week. "The fourth-place finisher will cross over to play [likely Group B winner] Croatia [ranked No. 2] and it's goodbye Charlie, but the team finishing third is going to draw a [favourable opponent].
"Turkey is a winnable game and Canada has to win against Brazil and Georgia. Canada is probably the better team [than Turkey], based on results in 2018 and 2019."
Monday vs. Montenegro, 11:30 a.m.
Feb. 16 vs. Georgia, 10 a.m.
Feb. 17 vs. Turkey, 2:30 p.m.
Feb. 18 vs. Greece, 8:30 a.m.
Feb. 19 — Quarter-finals
Feb. 20 — Semifinals
Feb. 21 — Finals
Canada faces Montenegro on Monday at 11:30 a.m. ET.
"It will be a tough match [but] we tied them at worlds in 2017, so anything is possible," Gardijan said.
Pair of blown leads
"Montenegro is more experienced and has been playing throughout the past year along with Greece," said Gross Jr., the former Canadian national team bench boss who has coached the University of Toronto women's team the past 12 years after guiding the men in the early 1990s."But you have to remember the pressure on Greece, Montenegro and Croatia is enormous. If they don't make the Olympics, it's a national disaster."
Greece edged Georgia 11-10 in other Group A action on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Canadians jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first quarter at Zwemcentrum Rotterdam, only to watch the Brazilians battle back to even matters before Côté notched the go-ahead goal with two seconds on the clock.
Constantin-Bicari is likely to be the offensive force for a young outfit featuring many players making their Olympic qualification debut while Côté, a six-foot-two attacker from Montreal, is a standout offensive player with University of the Pacific Tigers in Stockton, Calif.
Brazil pulled even again early in the second quarter but Gardijan restored Canada's lead before halftime with a gem of a shot with a man up.
Canada extended its lead to 7-4 early in the third as Constantin-Bicari recorded his second of the game on a rebound off goalkeeper Slobodan Soro, then Côté added his second.
Milan Radenovic, Toronto
Gaelan Patterson, North Vancouver, B.C.
Bogdan Djerkovic, Ottawa
Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, Repentigny, Que.
Mark Spooner, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
George Torakis, Montreal
Jérémie Côté, Pointe-Claire, Que.
Sean Spooner, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Aleksa Gardijan, Gatineau, Que.
Aria Soleimanipak, Calgary
Max Schapowal, Beaconsfield, Que.
Reuel D'Souza, Port Coquitlam, B.C.
Samuel Reiher, Longueuil, Que.