The angst over the state of Canada’s goaltending reached new heights of absurdity the other day on the TSN set.
There was TV host James Duthie, flanked by NHL netminders Carey Price, Corey Crawford and Roberto Luongo, asking for “a show of hands if you’re sick already of the ‘goaltending-is-Canada’s-weakest-link question.’”
On cue, all three slowly raised their hands, the way you would in a classroom when you know the teacher isn’t going to call for an answer until everybody’s hand is in the air.
This is the unhappy byproduct of a 72-hour Canadian men’s Olympic orientation camp, which wrapped up here Tuesday. Every issue became so magnified it got to the point where the perception was Canada’s goalies might be collectively incapable of stopping a beach ball.
It got ridiculous and completely out of hand. It isn’t that bad. It just isn’t.
This week’s endless discussion about the state of Canadian goaltending missed the essential point as it applies to Olympic competition, past and future: Whoever gets the starting nod isn’t going to need to steal a game for Canada to win a gold medal.
Other teams may need lights-out, stand-on-your-head, brick-wall impenetrability to succeed. By contrast, Canada’s overall depth from the top to the bottom of the lineup is so good that steady and consistent goaltending has historically been good enough.
Conveniently forgotten in all the hand-wringing was how Crawford posted a sparkling 1.94 regular-season goals-against average this past year, and, oh, by the way, he helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.
Two years ago (the last time the NHL played a full 82-game season), Mike Smith won 38 games for a not-so-great Phoenix Coyotes team, posted a sparkling .930 save percentage and got them to the Stanley Cup semi-finals.
You get the picture: Luongo had 31 wins in 2011-12; Price was the best thing about the Montreal Canadiens last season; and Washington Capitals youngster Braden Holtby (the dark horse in the Olympic equation) and Cam Ward of the Carolina Hurricanes (absent from this camp) are legitimate, competent NHL goaltenders, capable of extraordinary things.
“We’re playing good teams,” Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said, as he delivered his camp wrap-up address. “You need good goaltending. You need good defence. You need balance. All these teams are relatively balanced. Any area of weakness can be an issue.
“I look back at the entire series of games we played in Vancouver [at the 2010 Winter Games]. We didn’t necessarily have a game where we were outshot 40-15 and we needed our goalie, but you need your goaltending to be good, because the other team is going to get chances. They have great players. You’ll need your goalies to make big saves at opportune moments.”
Since the NHL began sending players to the Olympics (starting in 1998 in Nagano), goaltending has not cost Canada a gold medal.
Canada won in 2002, with Martin Brodeur, and in 2010, with Luongo, and both provided the important saves as needed. But neither was required to be scene-stealers, either.
Canada lost in the quarter-finals in Turin in 2006, with Brodeur in net, eliminated 1-0 in the deciding game by Russia.
Similarly, Patrick Roy was excellent for Canada in 1998, when it lost in the semi-finals to the Czech Republic, 2-1 in a shootout. The only goal in the shootout was scored by Robert Reichel, off the goalpost and in.
Czech goalie Dominik Hasek was primarily responsible for both that win over Canada, as well as the 1-0 shutout victory over Russia in the gold-medal game – proving in a single-elimination tournament, a truly exceptional goaltending performance can overcome a superior team.
But how the other team’s goalie plays is a factor beyond your control, and more important, it has nothing to do with the state of your own goaltending.
“I don’t think you ever win without good goaltending,” said Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who scored the gold-medal-winning goal in 2010. “But we have really good goalies. The goalies that are here, we don’t have anything to worry about at that position.
“But if you look at any team that’s ever won anything in hockey, they always have good goaltending, whether it’s a big save in the first period of a final game, or one that gets you to the final game. They will be a factor at some point.”
Crawford’s play for Chicago is the best recent illustration. Three of the goalies Crawford faced – Tuukka Rask in the final, Jonathan Quick in the semis and Jimmy Howard in the quarters (a Finn and two Americans) – had superior credentials. The experts gave the “edge” to the opposition.
But Crawford and the Blackhawks ultimately persevered because they were the best team – and everybody held up their end, goalies, defencemen, forwards.
Sometimes, it really is as simple as that.