There is a temptation to look at Canada’s play in the men’s Olympic hockey tournament so far – eight out of a possible nine points, only two goals allowed – and think it isn’t enough.
It isn’t pretty enough; the margins of victory aren’t big enough; and what about that Sidney Crosby fellow anyway? Shouldn’t he have a goal or six by now? After all, it was Norway, then Austria and finally an injury-depleted Finnish team lining up to face Canada.
When the big boys come, will that be good enough?
Here are some realities about Olympic hockey. The first is, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish – and Canada is getting more in sync with every passing game, against European teams that understandably refuse to trade scoring chances with them because they are badly outmanned on the talent front.
Post-game, coach Mike Babcock took exception to a fairly innocuous opening question – to assess the team’s overall team play – to go on a rant about how unrealistic expectations have become for his team, and all the other medal contenders as well. It wasn’t the same as Wayne Gretzky’s us-against-the-world speech in Salt Lake City, but it had the same goal – to lessen the pressure on his team as the week progresses.
“It’s interesting,” Mr. Babcock said. “Every time I've come to Europe and coached a team, whether it be in ’97, the world junior, or ’04, the world championship, or this time, no one ever seems to be happy with us. I think we're competing like crazy, so I'm way happier than people that are sitting 200 feet away.”
And if you thought Finland’s defensive posture was bad – five players mostly backpedaling through the neutral zone for the last two periods Sunday night in Canada’s 2-1 overtime win – wait’ll you get a look at the next opponent, which is likely to be Switzerland on Wednesday in the quarterfinal round. Canada’s win over the Finns gave it top spot in Pool B and one of four byes directly into the quarterfinals. They will face the winner of the Latvia-Switzerland game, which will be played Tuesday, and if they win, a likely date with the United States looms in Friday’s semifinal. Switzerland plays the quintessential, defence-first style. The Swiss have played three games thus far and won two. All three games finished with the same final score – 1-0.
It isn’t going to be pretty.
So even if Canada isn’t exactly wowing people with their artistic impression in this tournament, the one thing they are doing exceptionally is adapting to the defensive tactics they’re seeing from the opposition. Good consistent defence doesn’t show up on highlight films, and sometimes, it can be a subtle thing to detect.
But in three games, they’ve surrendered exactly two goals – one on a communication miscue between goaltender Carey Price and his defencemen, the other on a Tuomo Ruutu tip-in.
Mr. Ruutu’s goal was one of only six shots the Finns scraped together in the final 40 minutes of regulation. Six shots. In 40 minutes of playing time. The Finns hardly made a foray into the offensive zone, backpedaling for most of the game, content to stay close and hope for a break.
In the meantime, Canada’s defencemen are leading the attack, with six of the 11 goals coming from two defencemen – Drew Doughty with four and Shea Weber with two. Mr. Doughty, of the Los Angeles Kings, is a wonderfully talented everyman – a plain-talking, hockey-playing savant, someone who emerged as a 20-year-old in the 2010 Olympics and ended up on the No. 1 pair by the end of the tournament. Now, some four years later, and more comfortable in his skin, he is wielding the proverbial hot stick.
Everything he touches seems to go in, which is a good thing, because others – notably Sidney Crosby and John Tavares, two of Canada’s top scorers – have yet to score a goal in the tournament.
While the hockey has not been picturesque, that doesn’t seem to matter in the least to the players or coaching staff.
“It’s a hard game,” Mr. Babcock said. “The European game is interesting; it’s all about defence, the end zone is smaller … they get out on your D so quick, the dynamic D we have don’t get to shoot any pucks; they play man-on-man and they’re on you like glue, and it’s hard, and you have to be committed to doing it.
“And the other thing that happens for the NHL player, and probably for you in the media, is the respect you have for the opposition. You say, ‘Well, he doesn’t play in the NHL.’ They’re playing for their country, and they play hard. And they make it hard on you.”
Canada’s game against Finland was undeniably a slog. The difference is the talent on Canada’s blue line. Mr. Doughty, Mr. Weber, Duncan Keith and the rest all have the ability to jump up in the play and create scoring chances.
“That’s what we’ve got to do, especially when they’re just sitting back like that,” Mr. Doughty said. “We have to make sure we have speed because a lot of times, our forwards are going to be stopped up at the far blue line. As much as we can jump in and help out the guys on offence, that’s what we need to do.”
Sadly, this is what it will take to win the gold medal, no matter who ends up in the winner’s circle next Sunday. Many people who watched Saturday’s game between Russia and the U.S. declared it an instant classic. It was – to the extent that the teams worked hard and there was never a lull at any point in a high-paced game. But how many Grade-A scoring chances were created by either team? Very few, a point Mr. Babcock reiterated.
“We don’t give up much,” he said. “I didn’t think we gave up much tonight. But when you look up at the score, they’ve got to be happy too. I mean, it’s 1-1. We had the puck the whole second period and it took us forever to get a shot on goal, and the scoring chances by our count were 2-2. So we have the puck the whole time, we have to find a way to generate offence better than that. But I was happy with it. Look at the [USA-Russia] game last night, which I thought was a high, high-end game, and the scoring chances were hard to come by.”
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