Sochi Olympics 2014: Canada Forge Golden Memories Against Sweden

Canada celebrate with gold medals. (Image courtesy of kitchener.ctvnews.ca,)

Canada celebrate with gold medals. (Image courtesy of kitchener.ctvnews.ca.)

Four years ago it was Vancouver, today it was the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Different location, same result. Canada finished their Sochi Olympics beaming with the plunder of success, leaving Sweden to the consolation of silver and watching their flag rise high above all others, looking proudly down at the abnormally large gold medals hanging around their necks.

That glint of gold represents so many things, a moment in history, living up to expectation, defending a crown, vindication in the face of the harshest critics and ultimately, executing the perfect game-plan. Here’s how they did it.

– Flawless defence.

(Image courtesy of on.globeandmail.com.)

(Image courtesy of on.globeandmail.com.)

There isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about what is arguably the finest defensive display from a team in tournament-play I have ever seen, nevertheless, I’m still going to wax-lyrical about it for a little while longer.

Before Sochi, the eye naturally deviated towards the show-stopping names that litter Canada’s offence and all the highlight-reel plays that awaited us avid spectators, but it turns out this roster was always a shut-down team at heart; well certainly once Mike Babcock had put his stamp all over them.

Canada only conceded three goals during the entire tournament, only gave up 129 shots and never trailed once. The reason, unbelievable consistency from everyone in their defensive corps and even more importantly, wonderful commitment by their forwards to maintain shape and dominate possession.

At the d-line, Duncan Keith was his usual all-consuming force across the ice, Shea Weber superb in the along-the-board physical warfare and to my recollection, Marc Edouard Vlasic may have the distinction of never being discovered out of position once, but don’t actually quote me on that. Then there’s four-goal titan Drew Doughty, as well as the ever-reliable trio of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Dan Hamhuis; though the latter didn’t get much TOI. Controversial inclusion PK Subban only played the single match, his expansive style not particularly suited to the European rink or Babcock’s chosen tactics in the end; who’d have thought!

Though the forwards generally struggled to find the net, their overall work-ethic is the reason Canada leave Sochi victorious. You might expect supreme two-way responsibility from specialists Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron, but the entire core of forwards bought into the system of winning the puck back through waves of group pressure and then breaking quickly. The desire of so called ‘luxury-offensive stars’ to hunt when the opposition were in possession is a credit to themselves and to the coaches. Yes, an Olympic medal was at stake but many a star-laden team has fallen victim to egos and beyond all else, a lack of will to skate that extra inch to help a teammate (see Russia’s tournament for an example of this). Canada’s defence was above all, about everyone pitching in.

– Nullifying Sweden’s explosive defence.

(Image courtesy of olympics.cbc.ca.)

(Image courtesy of olympics.cbc.ca.)

As far as game-plans go, Canada’s was of the simple but effective variety. By keeping possession of the puck and maintaining a demoralizing offensive cycle whenever they entered the opposition zone, they neutralised a vital component of Sweden’s game, offense from the blue-line and more specifically, Erik Karlsson.

The Ottawa Senators’ defencemen was in my eyes, the stand-out player in this tournament alongside Drew Doughty and Phil Kessel. A legitimate threat in transition and a fine skater, today, Canada’s forwards kept him pinned in his own zone. After absorbing lengthy and physically punishing shifts, he barely had the energy to make it back to the bench, let alone dazzle us with his customary shooting repertoire or bursts forward.

Canada’s turning of the Swedish defence when Karlsson was on the ice was a strategy specifically designed at diminishing his threat, paying him the highest of compliments. Though the player, who some forget is still relatively young, looked distraught as he received his own medal, the cold light of day should allow him to reflect on the fantastic tournament both he and Sweden had, collecting their first Olympic silver since 1964. His form also bodes well for the Senators heading back into the NHL season.

– Stars shining brightly on the big stage.

In Vancouver, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews stepped up when it really mattered, when big players are expected to rise above everyone else and deliver. Today they did exactly the same.

(Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

(Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

The ‘next one’ didn’t quite match the heroics of his OT winner against the USA four years ago, but he couldn’t have scored a more important goal. Though he hasn’t played bad by any means, after failing to score in any game before today’s final and only registering a couple of assists, the critics were waiting with their flaming torches, ready to burn him into the ground. I even wrote a few days ago that ‘he was expected to be Superman, so had to be’.

Well he wasn’t exactly flying as he stole the puck from the Swedes at the blue-line but he was pretty close, racing away from the chasing pack and beating Lundqvist with a stunning move to the backhand. That goal to make it 2-0 was the winner in my book, the tally that crushed any chance of a Swedish comeback and gave Canada the breathing space to seal their historic win. When they’re needed, great players come to the fore, say what you like about Sidney Crosby’s antics and his perceived flaws, but he did that today.

Chicago Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews is the epitome of ‘leading by example’. Four years ago, he saved his first tournament goal for the gold-medal game and this year was a remarkable repeat, as he deflected home Jeff Carter’s pass to give Canada a first-period lead. His energy was infectious at times and the only phrase to really do him justice is the perennial ‘all-rounder’. He had struggled to find the goal-scoring touch during earlier games but the first goal was crucial against Sweden, Canada looked impossible to peg back playing in their intelligent style, and just as he did for the Hawks during their Stanley Cup run last year, Toews came up aces when he needed to.

Corey Perry and Rick Nash also saved their best for when it counted, both bringing a sharpness and purpose to their play which had been missing in previous contests.

(Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

(Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca.)

Another standout performance came from the much maligned Chris Kunitz, who put the icing on the cake by slamming home a great shot off the crossbar for Canada’s third. In all honesty, Kunitz’s hit-the-net style of play wasn’t well suited to the larger rinks and he struggled offensively throughout the tournament. Despite this, he continued to get great TOI, including on the PP, something that could only have been a reward for his work without possession. Hard-work, consistency and being careful with the puck are the predominant attributes Babcock was looking for in his Canadian team; attributes that Chris Kunitz has in abundance. When asking whether he was the right selection, or whether he was only picked because of his chemistry with Crosby, I can only answer that he was picked because he best exemplifies the qualities that led this star-studded team to the ultimate prize.

– King Henrik only managing a princely display.

Henrik Lundqvist made 33 saves but I include him in this analysis because for Sweden to win the gold, he had to be the best player on the ice and simply wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, he was good and had very little chance with the three goals he let past him. It’s just if anybody was going to defy Canada, take everything their all-conquering array of attacking talent could muster and register a shutout, it would have been the King. However ridiculous it may sound, today he wasn’t at his very best, giving up too many juicy rebounds and failing to make the impossible saves he so often does. Admittedly though, Canada did make life tough on him from the start by getting traffic to the net and seemed to have a shoot-on-sight, shoot from-any-angle policy.

(Image courtesy of sochi2014.iihf.com.)

(Image courtesy of sochi2014.iihf.com.)

He was certainly far busier than Carey Price at the opposite end, who’ll receive plenty of plaudits for making good saves on the rare occasions he was called upon; though with their defensive display, I feel sure I could count those moments from the two games against USA and Sweden on one hand. The post was also friendly to Canada early on, Gustav Nyquist’s dart to the net and sharp shot ricocheting of the post before falling behind the Canadiens’ net-minder, who gratefully scooped it up. Regardless, no gold medal was ever won without a little bit of luck.

– Sweden’s Centre Crisis

(Image courtesy of olympics.cbc.ca.)

(Image courtesy of olympics.cbc.ca.)

It’s been well documented, but the decimation of Sweden’s centres was never felt more keenly than today. The loss of Henrik Sedin just before the tournament and Henrik Zetterberg during the preliminary round didn’t break their stride, as they sailed through the group stage as the number one seed. However, Number one centre Nicklas Backstrom was suspended by the IOC because of a failed doping-test, incredibly leaving them even more thin at that position. The substance he tested positive for is an allergy medicine not on the NHL’s banned list, so there should be no issues with Backstrom resuming the season with the Capitals.

As expected, Sweden sorely missed all three against Canada, players who could keep possession were dearly needed to reverse the flow, as were those who could inspire the youngsters around them. In the end, the Swedes’ tournament fizzled out as they failed to gain any traction on Carey Price’s goal during the third period.

In the end, everything that needed to happen for Canada did. Sochi 2014 was an incredible tournament and the hockey was sublime. It will be remembered as a disappointment by the US and Slovakia in particular but for Canada, Sweden, Finland, Latvia and Slovenia, it provided historic moments of unadulterated joy. As a neutral, I can’t wait for South Korea in four years time, though whether there will be any NHL players competing remains to be seen.

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