Throughout the 2014 Winter Olympics, I made quite a few predictions. Some ended up being laughably wrong, some tragically wrong, but I did get one thing right, which happened to be the most important (and easiest to guess):
Canada won the gold medal.
That’s two straight Olympics. 11 Canadian men now have two gold medals in ice hockey in the span of four years. Two consecutive Winter Olympic Games that Canada has been the odds-on favorite to win gold, and both times have they delivered. Canada has been spared of the heartbreak endured by the Russians, Americans, Finns, Swedes, Czechs, Slovaks, Austrians, Slovenians, Norwegians, Latvians, Swiss, Germans, and Belarusians, most of whom haven’t even seen a medal in the previous two Olympics, let alone a gold, let alone fucking two golds.
The Canadians delivered a complete effort to win the Sochi Games. They were expertly coached by Detroit’s Mike Babcock (the only coach who is a ring-carrying member of the Triple Gold Club), who crafted Team Canada into a hardened group of hockey players that simply refused to panic, overthink themselves, or deviate in any way from their game plan. Many expected the Canadians to be an offensive powerhouse because of the sheer number of NHL points their players have recorded, but the wider international ice surface makes traditional NHL offense harder to enact.
Babcock recognized the challenge presented by the Olympic ice surface and answered it with players that will simply out-skate and out-work other teams because that’s all they know how to do and that’s exactly what their coach wanted them to do. This was best exemplified in Canada’s semifinal victory over the US; at many times throughout the game the Americans were barely keeping up, while the immense speed and relentlessly well-executed attack of the Canadians exhausted the US skaters. Canada, a complete team with All-Star depth at every position, never gave the American skaters an inch, demonstrating a maddening attention to defense and serene patience in the face of low-scoring games, both cornerstones of Babcock-coached teams.
The Canadians didn’t need to score more than one goal because they spent most of the game working a cycle in the corners of their offensive zone, which, if executed properly, as Canada’s was the entire game, can continue for long seconds and quickly tire out defensemen while opening up ice for better passing lanes. Canada put its speed and effort on show today as well, as Sweden had few quality scoring chances while Canada held possession for long minutes of play. The Swedish defense, though patently faster than the Americans, was just as unable to keep up with Canada’s seemingly tireless legs; the big ice surface, lauded as an advantage for European nations, made it that much easier for the Canadians to dominate play by pouncing on loose pucks, exploiting gaps with tape-to-tape passing, and cycling endlessly in the corners. The Swedes, dominant throughout much of their own tournament, were, like the Americans, overmatched.
Speed is infectious; Canada’s defensemen were some of the best skaters on the ice at any given moment, effortlessly transitioning from forward to backward to forward, all whilst reading opponents’ breakouts, disrupting the attack, turning over the puck, and springing their forwards with pinpoint puck movement. The intelligent and omnipresent two-way play of Canada’s quick centers – Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, and John Tavares (who did miss Canada’s final two games) – suffocated some of the top offensive teams in the tournament, including the leading goal-scorers going in to the semifinals: the USA. Overall, Canada allowed 3 goals (count ’em, won’t take long) in 6 games and spent the last 174 minutes and 19 seconds of the tournament with a 0 on their side of the scoreboard.
Those three goals were all let in by Carey Price, who played five games (Roberto Luongo shut out Austria in the prelims) and made 103 saves – good for a tournament save percentage of 0.97 and a goals-against average of 0.60. Those are two absolutely legendary stats. They aren’t the type of stats Canada was expected to put up, but they were the stats that ultimately mattered more than any others, and if you need proof of that, check out that weird piece of jagged medal around Price’s neck. Plenty of controversy arose when Canada failed to conclusively devastate their opponents on the scoreboard during the preliminary round, but the players didn’t seem to notice any of it and quietly went about shutting down opponents in historic manner. At no point in the tournament did Canada trail an opponent; during no game did they give up more than one goal.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s been four years since Vancouver, and even though the Stanley Cup has remained in America for now, six players on Canada’s roster won a Cup between their country’s two gold medals; five of those players were part of both medal-winning teams (Patrick Sharp won Cups in 2010 and 2013, but did not play in the Vancouver Games). Canada has remained a dominant hockey force and from the looks of it, the rest of the world still has some serious catching up to do.