Few predicted the ease with which the men’s hockey team took care of business in Sochi. But all the signs were there from the beginning.
If you can say you saw Canada’s victory in Sochi coming exactly as it did without crossing your fingers, congratulations. If you never worried for a second about the country’s greatest hockey talents finding enough offence for gold, not even when they scored only three goals against Norway in their opening game or when a Latvian guy currently toiling with the Syracuse Crunch turned aside 55 of Canada’s 57 shots, you are among the canniest observers of the national obsession. If you envisioned Canada winning a thoroughly unsuspenseful semifinal 1–0, our laurels to you. And if you anticipated all this, you knew even before waking on Sunday that the only mystery about the final would be the cause of the absence of the opponent’s key offensive threat.
Many of you did believe that Canada would win gold in Sochi; that Canada’s NHLers would cope at least as well as or better than the other nations’ best players when they stepped onto the 200-by-100-foot international ice surface; that too much could have been read into the first-round struggles; that the ship would right itself; that their goaltending, perceived to be a weakness by many, would turn out to be an underlying strength; that in the end, they’d just find a way, as they have done before. That Canada would claim victory in 2014 wasn’t always a sure thing. But there were signs that came into view while the best Canadian talents in the NHL were playing their ways onto or off the Olympic roster in December and January, after the team was selected, and even when these players hit the ice together for the first time in Russia. When pundits laid out their projected lineups, they floated out the word that Montreal’s P.K. Subban would be on the bubble, that his role on the blueline might be limited. In Montreal, the soap opera sold papers and dominated airwaves: What could the Canadian management team led by Steve Yzerman possibly have against Subban, the holder of the Norris Trophy? If you could set aside a partisan’s reflexive indignation, you realized that he faced remarkably stiff competition, a bunch of players whose bona fides were completely in order. Duncan Keith had two Cup rings with Chicago and Drew Doughty one with L.A., and both were holdovers from the 2010 Olympic champion team. So too was Shea Weber, the cornerstone of the Canadian blueline at the Vancouver Games. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester have been the foundation of a St. Louis team that has been squarely in the NHL’s elite all season; likewise the less-heralded Marc-Édouard Vlasic in San Jose.
And yet, when you step back, would Subban be any worse than the third defenceman for any other nation, even if you stuck by left-shot-right-shot in cobbling together a roster? Or, another way: Take the best of the rest of the world, go seven deep and see if you’d take that player over P.K. It was clear that defence would be this team’s greatest asset. It was clear when the roster was named, and clear when Subban didn’t dress ahead of the little-used Dan Hamhuis in the opening round. For any other nation in the tournament, Subban would have taken a regular shift and manned the point on the power play.
Though Crosby’s golden goal was the lasting memory from Vancouver, defence largely defined that Canadian team four years ago, stifling and rocking what looked like a Russian offensive juggernaut in the quarterfinal game that set them on their way after first-round struggles. You could have expected the same template in Sochi—a blueline mobile and skilled enough to handle the forecheck, capable of making the first pass and starting the transition game. But you would’ve had to have been clairvoyant to have foreseen the degree to which the blueline would be involved in finishing. Or at least so astute that you’d suspect what even the principals didn’t expect.
Weber opened the scoring in Canada’s debut in Sochi, a booming slapshot from the point in the first period of the 3–1 win over Norway. Most pigeonhole Weber as a fearsome physical presence, and he’s not exactly a dancer in the open ice, but thanks to the nail gun he wields at the point, he’s in the middle of a career offensive NHL season: 15 goals through 56 games. And while Jamie Benn picked up the eventual winner against Norway, Doughty ended up with the insurance goal. The prominence of the blueline on the scoresheet seemed like a one-off, and it seemed that the designated scorers—Crosby, Toews et al—would get over their jet lag in short order and carry the day. As it turned out, Weber’s and Doughty’s heroics only presaged the crucial test in the first round and the quarterfinal.
Not the routine 6–0 rout of Austria, mind you—everybody, including Jeff Carter with a hat trick, was in on that one. But Doughty showed the way against Finland, scoring both goals in the 2–1 overtime victory, the winning shot a wired wrister from the faceoff circle that beat Tuukka Rask high on the stick side. After the win over the Finns, Doughty seemed almost dumbfounded by his theft of the spotlight and thunder from so many offensive stars. “I don’t know what’s going on [because] I don’t score like this in L.A. at all,” said Doughty, who, for the record, has just eight goals in 59 NHL games this season.
It was Weber’s turn again in the quarters. With the game tied 1–1 in the third period, little Latvia and the heroic, exhausted Kristers Gudlevskis were one bounce away from a titanic upset. Weber again struck the winner, this time with less than seven minutes remaining in regulation.
The lack of offence from the expected sources gave many fans, even blinkered patriots, the impression that the Americans should have been rated the favourites going into their semifinal against Canada. After all, the U.S. had knocked off Russia in a dramatic shootout and seemed to score at will in other play-in games, with a torrid Phil Kessel leading the way. The U.S. beat Russia in Vancouver in the preliminary round and came close to winning the final in a tense overtime. And through four games in Sochi, Canadian coach Mike Babcock seemed to be scrambling to find the right line combinations to make the most of the available talent.
In this case, though, if you could set aside expectations and just look at the flow of play going into the semifinal, you could see some form that augured well for the defending champions.
Start with the barest of facts: Yes, three of the four games were uncomfortably close, but the Canadians never trailed at any point. In the close games, the shots were one-sided in their favour: Finland managed just 15 shots on Carey Price, while Rask faced 27. The three- and four-star scoring chances were even less evenly distributed. As the game wore on, Canada won more shifts and dictated not just the pace of the play but the place, too—namely, the opponents’ end. The games never felt as close as they looked on the scoreboard.
Certain words and phrases come into vogue in the NHL every year, and this winter you’d hear people in the league talk about players with a “heavy game.” In the recent past, certain players were “hard to play against.” Canada’s best forwards going into the semifinal game were the embodiment of “heavy” and “hard to play against”: Centre Ryan Getzlaf and right-winger Corey Perry have led the way for Anaheim in the first half of this season, and they were showing the way in Sochi, controlling entire shifts, physically beating up opponents on the forecheck and wearing them out on the cycle. When Babcock linked the pair with Benn, a dominant line was in place, and it set the tone for the rest of the team: Take the game to the Americans, play in the U.S. end.
At the start of the game, it looked like the U.S. was going to live up to its billing. A few minutes into the first, Kessel blew by Keith and looked to have a clear line on Price. A couple of shifts later, John Carlson had the puck in the slot and forced Price to make a big save. By the end of the first period, though, the game’s equator lined up somewhere below the faceoff circle in the American end. And after Benn deflected Bouwmeester’s deftly disguised pass past American netminder Jonathan Quick early in the second period, each Canadian forward’s game became 20 or 30 pounds heavier. The U.S. won just one shift in the middle frame after Benn’s goal, and that included a power play. In the third period, they didn’t have a scoring chance at all. Many have said that Canada’s win in the semifinal will rank as the most emphatic 1–0 result in history—a duel with pistols drawn at 10 paces would place a close second.
The final was even more one-sided: Three-zip, and it felt like double digits. Playing without the injured Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin would have been a formidable enough handicap, but then the next centre on the Swedish depth chart, Nicklas Backstrom, had to be scratched because of an allergy medication that he had taken, apparently unaware of its place on the IOC’s list of banned substances. It would be down to Henrik Lundqvist to keep his team in it, hoping all the while for lucky caroms, maybe a shootout, or some sort of Canadian nightmare. But it wasn’t to be.
If you were keeping track of scoring chances, it was 21 for the defending champions and seven for the challengers—Sweden had none in the third period until Jakob Silfverberg landed the puck in the slot with seconds left. The Canadian team dictated play throughout, their game as heavy as plutonium. Goals came evenly distributed: Toews opened the scoring in the first, deflecting a pass from Carter past Lundqvist; Crosby followed in the second with a breakaway score; and Chris Kunitz had a solo number in the third. It felt like the Swedes could have played this game 100 times and lost 99 in regulation. It felt like the Canadian team was just finding its complete game, but that’s the fleeting nature of tournament play. Just hours after medals were draped around their necks, the players sat in planes bound for North America. Some will return as part of a different combination in four years and some won’t. How good this team might have been, how heavy and hard to play against, will forever be a matter of conjecture.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.