They argued about who would play net.
They debated over which forwards would be selected, and then argued again about what line combinations they should use.
But no one ever raised an eyebrow concerning Team Canada’s defence – nor should they after the clinic the back side put on Friday in Canada’s 1-0 victory over the United States that put it in Sunday’s gold-medal game against Sweden.
“That’s been something from Day 1 that we’ve really believed in and trust,” Canadian captain Sidney Crosby said after the game. “It’s been a big part of [our] success here. You see the games from every team at this point are really tight. That’s a common theme.
“When there’s not much separating each team, obviously, you have to make sure to keep the puck out of your net.”
And that is exactly what Canada has done, having now allowed but three goals in five games in the men’s 2014 Sochi Olympic hockey tournament. It might not be that impressive a statistic against weak opposition in Norway and Austria, low-scoring opposition in Finland and surprise opposition from Latvia in the quarter-finals. But up against the U.S., the top-scoring team in the tournament, it suddenly becomes very impressive indeed.
Certainly, Canada goaltender Carey Price has done the job he was expected to do and it was hoped he could do. But even he knows much of the credit for keeping other teams at bay has belonged to the defence.
“That defensive group in front of me played very well,” an appreciative Price told reporters. “They’re very good at boxing guys out and let me have my eyes.”
“We had looks,” frustrated American forward James van Riemsdyk said. “We just couldn’t get anything done.”
Not only has the defence stopped others from scoring, it has largely generated what little offence Canada has produced. Canada’s top scorer is defenceman Drew Doughty, with six points (four goals).
It was Doughty, the 24-year-old who was the surprise of Canada’s 2010 gold-medal win in Vancouver, who led the first rush against the powerful Americans. He carried the puck end to end, tried to split the U.S. defence and got a shot away.
No goal, but the big defenceman who always looks like his equipment doesn’t fit had served notice he was here to play.
And it was another defenceman, Jay Bouwmeester, who was responsible for Canada’s only goal.
Bouwmeester, who keeps his head up to a point where he sometimes looks like an ostrich on the ice, had the puck at the American blueline. He noticed Canadian forward Jamie Benn was looking back and darting for the slot area with his stick flattened, inviting Bouwmeester to skip a shot off the blade. Bouwmeester did so perfectly, the puck ricocheting off Benn’s stick and in behind American netminder Jonathan Quick.
“It was just kind of a puck that came out and there was guys going to the net,” said Bouwmeester, a polite man not given to talking about himself. “Their goalie, you’re not going to beat him with a lot of clean shots; it’s lucky Benny got a stick on it.”
While Canada’s forwards have often been shuffled like playing cards, head coach Mike Babcock has stuck solidly with defensive pairings that obviously work.
Usually there is a skating/attacking defenceman with a more stay-at-home defender, but all six in Friday’s game have attack potential and all six, at various times, found themselves deep in the U.S. zone trying to initiate something.
Duncan Keith has played with Shea Weber; Doughty has been with rock-steady Marc-Édouard Vlasic; Bouwmeester has been paired with St. Louis Blues teammate Alex Pietrangelo.
Ice time is remarkably fair: Weber led against the Americans with 21 minutes 39 seconds, followed by Doughty (20:33), Keith (20:23), Pietrangelo (20:17), Bouwmeester (18:06) and Vlasic (17:20).
By contrast, American coach Dan Bylsma leaned heavily on the pairing of Ryan Suter (26:11) and Ryan McDonagh (23:23), with times dropping off quickly through the rest of the U.S. blueline.
“Depth,” Pietrangelo explained. “Anybody can step up at any time. That’s what’s really good about this whole tournament. We’re able to play four lines and six D. This whole tournament, we showed tonight [there’s] no need to worry too much about matchups. We just roll all the lines.”
According to Keith, no one should be surprised at how low-scoring the games are in Sochi. He believes the big ice surface is a significant factor.
“First of all,” he said, “it’s tough to generate chances. You play good defence and I think it’s going to limit teams’ chances. You’ve got good goaltenders at both ends. All teams have good goaltenders in this tournament, so you’re going to have saves when maybe there was a goal [in the NHL].”
Keith concedes the Canadians were deliberately playing “kind of a smothering defensive style,” but if it works against Sweden on Sunday, it will be celebrated rather than jeered.
People might even then be saying this is the best defence Canada has ever iced.
Even if they’re still arguing about who should play with Crosby.