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Normally, forwards and goaltenders are the easy most valuable player choices in the Olympic hockey tournament, because statistics factor so significantly into the decision. But you could easily argue in 2014, with the tournament coming down to a single-game showdown, that the three choices for the MVP award are all defencemen: Shea Weber and Drew Doughty on the Canadian side, Erik Karlsson for the Swedes.
Going into Sunday’s gold-medal game, Canada has surrendered just three goals in five games, a staggeringly low total. It is a by-product of the game they’ve had to play here – mostly against lower-seeded European teams smart enough to know that they couldn’t play a run-and-gun style against the Canadians. Often, it made for tedious stretches in the games – there haven’t been a lot of Picassos painted in this tournament; the starving artists and their Elvis Presley portraits in velvetine have had the day – but the genius of the Canadian approach is that they’ve played the style they’ve had to play to be successful.
Weber said it most succinctly after that narrow, harrowing 2-1 victory over Latvia when someone asked him: Can you beat the United States playing the same way you did against Latvia? Weber’s answer was: We didn’t play the United States tonight, we played Latvia.
And that just sums it up in a nutshell.
That night, Weber stuck around to chat after the game. Against the sagging Latvian defensive posture, where five players all collapsed back toward the net, the only plays that were open were back at the point. So the Canadian forwards kicked the puck back out to Doughty and Weber, Duncan Keith and Alex Pietrangelo and they blasted away.
Four or five times, the Latvian players limped off the ice, from the force of Weber’s shots. It was brave and maybe foolhardy though, although we couldn’t get Weber to say much about it until someone joked: “They must not get the NHL Centre Ice package in Latvia.” Weber smiled at that and then muttered something about how he hoped nobody got hurt in the game because that’s not what he wanted.
But Weber’s shot can back off players when the attacking zones are just 58 feet as opposed to 64 feet in the NHL, putting him six feet closer to the net, when Canada has possession. Meanwhile, Doughty’s ability to find seams and jump into the play was also a factor in Canada’s wins, especially in the 2-1 overtime win over Finland that gave Canada the third seed for the playoff round.
What sets Doughty apart is he doesn’t let nerves affect his play. This is a rare quality in any athlete and he was trying to explain why that was. In the last two years, Doughty has played in the Stanley Cup final once and the Stanley Cup semi-finals twice – and didn’t show any signs of nerves there either.
“I think I probably feel more pressure playing for my club team than I do for Team Canada,” said Doughty. “You have so many guys on this team that can step up at any given time and win the game for us. When I’m back home, I’m looked on a lot more to do things for my team and relied on more – so I feel more pressure there.”
He was just 20 when he played so well for Canada in the 2010 win but says the nerves there came not from playing the games but from being around players from a previous generation.
“I was just a young guy there and had so many older guys around me that I didn’t know whatsoever,” said Doughty. “Everyone was a new face to me. I was nervous mostly because of that – not because of the fans and the pressure and the country. I was just meeting all these all-star players.”
It was players such as Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer, former Stanley Cup champions, who anchored that defence along with Doughty and Duncan Keith.
“It wasn’t liked I leaned on them for advice vocally, just watching them, that’s all I had to do. I learned so many things just watching those guys play. It helped me out for this one for sure.”
Sweden will pose an interesting challenge, given they will likely play a similar style to the Finns, trapping wildly.
Long gone are the days of the Swedish “Torpedo” – the attacking-from-behind style they used to good effect against Canada in 2002, when they blasted the Canadians out of the rink in the opening game. Karlsson is the one wild card in the equation for the Swedes. Tactically, he’s played here the way he has in the NHL, joining the attack, creating scoring chances and in the case of their 2-1 win over Finland, which set up this gold-medal finale, scoring the decisive goal on the power play.
Sweden is the one team in the tournament that has been good with the man advantage – six goals in 17 tries, for a 36.8 per cent success rate. They will try to do the same against the Canadians – keep the scoring chances down, rely on Henrik Lundqvist for the big save, and hope to get sprung for a breakaway or two that they can capitalize on. It may not be the same entertaining wide-open game you saw between Canada and Sweden, but with the gold medal on the line, no one is worried about putting on a show.
Right now, all that matters is finding a way to win. Any way at all will be the right way.
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