As we finally exhale and take stock of two thrilling weeks of best-on-best hockey, let’s evaluate the biggest winners and losers from the 2014 Olympic hockey tournament.
Entering the tournament, heaps of praise were poured upon Canada’s forward group and the expectation was they would score in bunches. But it was the defending Olympic champs’ defence, stellar goaltending (three goals allowed in six games) and businesslike approach that made the difference. The scores were tight (2-1 over Latvia?!) and the goals were more clutch than plentiful, but this Team Canada was more confident and poised than the 2010 group. Mike Babcock’s team never trailed at any point in the tournament – 610 minutes and 12 seconds of dominance — and out-chanced the opposition 152-52.
2. Steve Yzerman
Could things have worked out any better for Stevie Y? His franchise player in Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos, was given another two weeks to rehab in preparation for the Lightning’s stretch run after it was determined he wasn’t healthy enough to play in the Olympics. By replacing Stamkos with teammate Martin St. Louis, Yzerman also smoothed things out a bit with his captain (even though St. Louis slept on his decision to fly to Russia) and offered the veteran an opportunity to get the Olympic medal that had eluded him to this point in his career. Yzerman’s best offseason signing, Finland’s Valtteri Filppula, skipped Sochi as he recovers from an ankle injury, while 2013 fifth-round pick, goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, looks like a good pickup. And, oh yeah: another gold medal, critics.
No one ever picks Finland as a medal favourite, and yet no country has won more medals in men’s ice hockey since the professionals began competing in 1998. The Finns took home shiny necklaces in 1998 (bronze), 2006 (silver), 2010 (bronze), and now 2014, with a decisive 5-0 victory over Team USA in the bronze medal game. Consider: the Americans were at full strength; the Finns were down their best three centres, Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov; Finland was the only nation to push Canada to overtime – and the blue and white’s performance is all the more impressive.
4. Women’s hockey
With all due respect to Canada-USA, USA-Russia and Canada-Sweden on the men’s side, the most thrilling and memorable game of Olympic hockey was waged by a bunch of ladies who aren’t allowed to body check. Hours after IIHF president Rene Fasel guaranteed that women’s hockey -- a discipline with just two countries that can win gold – will never be axed from the Olympic program, the Canadian women showed us why it should never leave in a come-from-behind, 3-2 overtime epic that featured great goals, greater controversy, and the greatest of luck.
5. Jamie Benn
The only player to beat a goaltender in the Canada-USA semifinal, the Dallas Stars captain made every second of his Olympic opportunity count. Remember, Benn was left off Canada’s orientation camp invite list. That irked him. He’s a soft spoken guy, but in the fall he said that the snub fired him up to prove Team Canada’s brass wrong. Not only did he make the team, but he was easily one of Canada’s best forwards – at both ends of the rink.
6. T.J. Oshie and the international shootout
The NHL shootout can be infuriating at worst and partially satisfying at best. But anyone who watched the U.S.-Russia skills competition saw a treat: an all-star-calibre skills competition with the world’s greatest snipers and goaltenders, but unlike an all-star game, this had real implications. Surely it made Devils fans long for Ilya Kovalchuk just a little bit, and Blues fans thankful they have Oshie. Hey kids, let me tell you about that time I saw one guy shoot six times and score four different ways in one shootout.
7. Small ice
The most common misconception about the wider international ice surface heading into Sochi was that the world’s best playmakers would have more room to create magic. Instead, goaltending, patience and a pinch of luck proved more important than freewheeling offence. The men’s side was long on great performances but a little short on classic games, and the extra white space might be partly to blame.
8. Old dudes
How great is it that the oldest NHLer in the tournament, 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, became the oldest hockey player ever to win an Olympic medal? Selanne leaves his sixth Olympics with his fourth medal (three bronze and a silver) and Player of the Tournament honours. He was asked to carry Finland’s flag to the closing ceremony but had to catch a flight back to North America, where he’s playing for the Cup-contending Ducks. Wily veterans Petr Nedved, 42; Jaromir Jagr, 42; Latvian flag bearer Sandis Ozolinsh, 41; and Daniel Alfredsson, 41, all represented well for the old-guy set.
Team Canada’s top two scorers, Drew Doughty (six points) and Shea Weber (five points), both play the blueline. Defenceman Erik Karlsson (eight points) tied American Phil Kessel for most points in the tournament. Finland’s young Olli Maata (five points) was a star for the bronze winners. How great were the defencemen in Sochi? In the games that mattered most, the reigning Norris winner, P.K. Subban, couldn’t crack Canada’s lineup, while Sweden’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson barely saw the ice. Defence triumphs.
10. Carey Price’s reputation
Team Canada’s starting goaltender entered Sochi with a career NHL playoff record of 9-17, a 2.90 goals-against average, a .905 save percentage, and a cloud of doubt regarding whether he was the man to backstop Canada to gold. All Price did was turn in the longest shutout streak of his career and blank both the Americans and Swedes over the final two games.
“Playing behind that group of guys was a lot of fun,” Price humbly told CBC, a chunk of gold tapping on his chest protector.
11. Ted Nolan (with a stick-tap to Kristers Gudlevskis) and Kevin Dineen
Imagine. You jet from making the most of the NHL’s worst team in Buffalo to nearly accomplishing the unthinkable on the world stage. It was a big deal when Ted Nolan coached Latvia to a berth into the Olympic tournament. It was an even bigger deal when his Latvian Cinderellas upset Team Switzerland 3-1 and made Canada nervous in a tight quarterfinal.
In another unlikely coaching tale, Kevin Dineen goes from being the sacrificial lamb of the awful Florida Panthers’ to a golden replacement coach in a span of three months. Filling in for Dan Church, who resigned as coach of the Canadian women just two months prior to Sochi, Dineen stepped in under pressure and rallied the ladies to two Olympic victories – in the two most exciting hockey games of the fortnight -- over their rival Americans.
Because of the close proximity of the Olympic Village dorms to the Bolshoy Ice Dome – itself a winner for the way the current game score and flag of the competing nations was projected onto the outside of the dome – and also because of the awesomeness of Scandinavian people, team such as Finland and Sweden cycled to their games and practices, often in very unthreatening packs. Love it.
13. The case for NHLers competing in Pyeongchang 2018
Yzerman won’t be there, but NHL players should be. True, there were some unfortunate injuries (that is hockey) and a couple of questionable refereeing decisions (also hockey), but the quality of best-on-best play, global promotion of the game and the passion of both the players and the fans (Canadian bars crowded at 6 a.m.) cannot be matched by a World Cup of Hockey, Mr. Bettman.
14. Team spirit
Whether it was Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson cheering on the ice dancers or the U.S. and Canadian athletes facing off in a just-for-fun road hockey game, the cross-sport passion and support was tangible. The best was Canada’s bobsleigh team of Heather Moyse and Kaillie Humphries leaving a handwritten note (way better than an @ mention, no?) for the Candian women’s hockey team, who in turn left a note for the men’s team:
And the 14 biggest hockey losers from Sochi…
The Kessel family: The IOC would have you believe Amanda “won” silver. The stats show Phil won the scoring race. Doubt either sibling feels like a winner.
Alex Ovechkin: Most athletes will never comprehend the pressure this guy was under. After Russia lost its quarterfinal match, Ovechkin’s father suffered a heart attack and Ovie’s coach signaled him out as an underachiever.
Vladimir Putin: The team he was banking on never gelled.
Buffalo Sabres: Jonathan Quick deserved to start for Team USA, but with Ryan Miller not given a chance to look good on the big stage, the Sabres were denied a chance to showcase a must-trade asset.
Henrik Zetterberg: After suffering a herniated disk in his back, the captain of Team Sweden and the Detroit Red Wings could be done for the NHL regular season.
Mike Babcock and Pavel Datsyuk’s relationship: “Babcock is not my concern right now,” the ailing Datsyuk told reporters when questioned whether he should be resting for the Red Wings’ run instead of playing for Russia. True. Datsyuk’s concern was his national team, and he played wonderfully. But there have often been hints of of Datsyuk leaving for the KHL, and words like that won’t dispel that idea.
Islanders fans: John Tavares’ season-ending knee injury will give them less reason to buy tickets to watch a struggling club.
Garth Snow: Not only did he lose Tavares, but the angry New York GM inadvertently dissed two of his best players – Olympic standout Michael Grabner (five goals in four games) and red-hot Kyle Okposo – when he insinuated his team wasn’t worth watching now.
Big ice: Defensive coaching strategies and a commitment to bottling the middle of the ice made for less excitement on the wider international sheet.
New York Rangers: Rick Nash is stoked, but the Rangers’ leading scorer, Norwegian Mats Zuccarello suffered a nasty hand injury and is out three to four weeks. Also: After losing the gold medal game, will the stellar Henrik Lundqvist suffer an Olympic hangover, or will he be that much more determined to win a Cup?
L.A. Kings’ offensive system: Los Angeles can’t buy an NHL goal, then Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter hop on a plane and suddenly outscore the likes of Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry and Jonathan Toews.
Nicklas Backstrom: The last great Swedish centre standing was told two hours before the gold medal game that he would not be permitted to compete because the allergy medicine he’d been taking for seven years contains a banned substance.
Henrik Sedin, Claude Giroux, Kyle Okposo, Jiri Hudler, Bobby Ryan, Steven Stamkos and rest on the brink: A two-week vacation is great and all, but for the NHL stars unable to attend due to injury or selection committee decision, not being a part of a rare, wonderful tournament must ring with the sting of a thousand blocked shots.
IIHF standings: Due to some weird formula, likely concocted by merging the math of the BCS and ATP Tour, Canada – winner of the last two Olympic tournaments -- now ranks third in international hockey.