Defense is key to gold for Canada
SOCHI, Russia -- Nearly two weeks ago when Team Canada stepped onto the ice for its first practice, the coaching staff talked about its single, devoted focus: Laying down a foundation based on a defensive structure that would dictate everything else.
All the teaching and preparation was about knowing how to defend on the big ice. Nothing else mattered.
It was based perhaps in the lessons learned in Torino eight years ago when an injury-ravaged Team Canada looked like a fish out of water on the international ice.
Former Swiss national team head coach Ralph Krueger was brought in this year to help head coach Mike Babcock devise a plan that would work overseas. Dr. Big Ice, if you will, has been Krueger's role within Team Canada.
Friday at Bolshoy Ice Dome, Team Canada delivered its greatest defensive performance of the five NHL Olympics, an absolutely masterful shutdown of perhaps the most offensively talented American team ever.
The thrilling 1-0 semifinal victory was Team Canada delivering on that defensive foundation instilled before the tournament and perfected with each passing game. There's a belief in how the Canadians play, a belief that their defensive structure will win them a gold medal.
"That's been something from day one that we've really believed in and trust that that's a big part of having success here," captain Sidney Crosby said after the game. "You see the games from every team at this point are pretty tight. That's a common theme. And there's not much separating each team."
There was so much focus before this game on Canada's inability to score in this tournament. But not enough attention was paid to the fact the Canadians were playing incredibly well defensively.
They've allowed only three goals in the tournament, a stingy operation that works only because high-priced NHL stars bought into the defensive structure presented to them as the key to gold.
"That's a sign of a good coaching staff and smart hockey players," forward Patrick Sharp said. "Everyone knows what we can do individually and offensively back home. But it's nice to see offensive players playing so well defensively and buying into the team game. We don't care who scores the goals in our locker room, as long as we're scoring and win the game."
Team Canada was mocked by many for having players in running shoes playing ball hockey last August at its camp in Calgary. But it was during those sessions that this defensive foundation began to be laid.
"I think it definitely helped," Sharp said. "I know we all laughed about running around in our running shoes in August. But things happened fast when we got here in Sochi and I think it provided us a basis for what we're building off of now. It was definitely beneficial."
Canada neutralized the high-flying Americans on Friday by keeping them hemmed into their own zone for much of the night with a clinic of a cycle. Sidney Crosby led the way, playing easily his most impactful game of the tournament and keeping David Backes and his line bottled up in the U.S. zone for most of the night, while he also created a number of dangerous offensive chances.
No. 87 was spectacular on this night.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Toews was at his best, as well, in his shutdown role against the high-scoring Phil Kessel line. For the life of me I can't figure out why U.S. head coach Dan Bylsma didn't use his last-line change advantage to pull Kessel away from Toews, but he said afterward that was a matchup he wanted.
A gift to Team Canada is what that was, allowing Toews' line to do its thing on Kessel without interference. That was a critical development in this game.
Jamie Benn scored the game's lone goal on a redirection of a nifty Jay Bouwmeester pass, just another moment in a great tournament for the Dallas Stars captain. Benn has been a horse throughout and Babcock's decision two games ago to put Benn on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry was nothing short of brilliant.
By the way, Benn's impact in this tournament is not bad for a guy who wasn't even invited to camp last August. Four years ago, while watching Team Canada win on home ice, Benn made it a goal of his to not miss out this time around.
"I was sitting on my couch at home just like every other Canadian [four years ago]," Benn said. "Having the Olympics in Vancouver, it was pretty much my hometown. I definitely wanted to be a part of it this year and I found a way onto this team."
The Benn-Getzlaf-Perry "big boy" line threw its weight around Friday night and created havoc in the U.S. zone.
After all the line juggling and lineup changes that led to a lot of second-guessing of the coaching staff, Team Canada found just the four lines it wanted. Just in time for a semifinal win over the U.S. and a gold-medal showdown with Sweden.
And finally, what can you say about Carey Price? The dude looks so calm in goal you swear it appears he falls asleep during games. That poise has rubbed off on teammates, some of whom didn't even know him before this tournament.
"I've played in front of lots of good goalies, but today he was great," defenseman Bouwmeester said. "He's so calm. Nothing really fazes him, even the chances they did have, he made some good saves. He just was never really out of position, and I think when you watch him, that's impressive."
Price's play vindicates Babcock's decision to make him their guy in this tournament when many people back home believed the coach should go back to 2010 gold medalist Roberto Luongo.
It also has quieted all the concerns people had about Canada's goaltending dating back to last August's camp.
"I thought he was great," Babcock said of Price's shutout performance over Team USA. "It's like anything, you build a résumé over time in your career, whether you're a coach or whether you're a writer or whether you hold a camera. You build a résumé and it gives you confidence. He's done that over time.
"He's a guy who I think is big and square and soft. He gives your team confidence. I thought he played real good tonight."
One game left for Team Canada and a chance to make three gold medals out of five NHL Olympics, a feat that would underline its continued perch atop the hockey world.
But a tough Sweden team awaits, one that is more comfortable on big ice, where it won gold in 2006 at Torino.
It will not be easy. But this has been a confident and loose Team Canada throughout this tournament.
Consider Jeff Carter's response when asked if he thought Canada was favored for Sunday's finale: "Are you really asking me that? I think we're going to win."
At this point, no reason to quibble with that answer.