The most time P.K. Subban spent on the ice during the 2014 Sochi games was after the gold medal game when, wearing full equipment, he joined his teammates for the celebration. Nobody with a maple leaf on his chest was smiling wider, slapping backs harder or jostling hair with more vigour—that is, when he wasn’t busy asking guys to say something he could capture with his “Subbie-Cam.” The player named the best defenceman in the NHL less than a year ago was the happiest healthy scratch in the history of hockey.
The fact Subban could be that thrilled with his spectator status must, in some way, speak to the unimpeachable performance of six defenceman who, along with goalie Carey Price, completely stiff-armed the Olympic competition, leading Canada from the back all the way through the tournament.
Even if their sole contribution was limiting opponents to three goals in six outings, the showing would have been legendary. But beyond stonewalling the world, Canada’s defenders attacked like wolves, leaping up whenever the opportunity presented itself. By taking care of business at both ends, the diverse blueline corps established itself as perhaps the best unit ever assembled.
Sweden’s Erik Karlsson was named the Olympics’ top defenceman for his offensive output, but if they kept calling names after No. 1, Canada might have claimed the next six spots. Start with Drew Doughty and Shea Weber, who tied for the Canadian scoring lead with six points apiece. Doughty—named to the tournament all-star team with Karlsson—is carving out an all-time career. In 2010, as a 20-year-old in Vancouver, he rocketed up the depth chart to become one of Canada’s most dependable D-men on a team that included Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. This time out, he was counted on to be a force from Game 1. Doughty’s signature showing came in the final preliminary contest versus Finland, when his second goal of the night delivered a 2-1 overtime win for the Canucks. At 24, Doughty has been a critical factor in two gold medal wins, plus a Stanley Cup championship for the Los Angeles Kings. Expect the Norris Trophies to follow.
As for Weber, he caused the biggest collective exhale in Canada when he one-timed a Doughty pass past Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis with less than seven minutes remaining in a quarterfinal game that had the potential to drive a nation toward non-celebratory drinks. The next time out, in the semifinal versus the United States, it was Jay Bouwmeester who cued the game’s only goal with a heads-up, high-velocity pass Jamie Benn tipped past American goalie Jonathan Quick.
That play came during the matchup that may have been the crowning achievement for the D-men, not for what they did in the opponent’s zone, but for the manner in which they subdued the best group of forwards they faced. Phil Kessel was firing darts for the Americans entering that epic clash, leading a collection of scorers who attacked in menacing waves. But shift after shift, Canada’s defencemen kept them at bay, aided greatly by the persistent backchecking of a devoted bunch of forwards. And when the odd crack did appear, Price was there, playing his best game of the tournament, a 31-save shutout that included a couple big saves early to set the tone.
By the time Canada faced an undermanned Swedish team in the final, a whitewash almost felt like an inevitability. When the final horn sounded, Price, named the best goalie in the event, finished with an absurd 0.59 goals-against average and .972 save percentage in five games. Doughty, Weber and Duncan Keith each had another gold medal to add to one they earned in the first leg of this back-to-back triumph. Bouwmeester—who played 764 NHL regular season games before getting his first taste of playoff action last spring, and was on the club that tanked in 2006 in Turin—finally had reason celebrate. His partner with Canada and the St. Louis Blues, Alex Pietrangelo, endeared himself with steady play, as did San Jose Shark Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the most unfamiliar name to casual observers who become rabid hockey fans every four years.
“Playing behind that group of guys was a lot of fun, ” Price said when it was all over. As the smile of Subban and Canadians everywhere can attest to, watching them was wasn’t bad, either.