The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Posted: 02/23/2014 2:32 PM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 02/23/2014 3:13 PM
SOCHI, Russia - As Team Canada prepared to go on to the ice for the third period against Sweden, 20 minutes from an Olympic gold medal that felt inevitable, Ryan Getzlaf was loose enough to poke some fun at coach Mike Babcock.
"He said: 'It's all about the ball hockey, guys. It's all about the ball hockey,'" Babcock recalled.
The journey started with ball hockey at the team's Olympic orientation camp in August, and it ended Sunday with a gold medal. For the past six months, from executive director Steve Yzerman to Babcock to the players, there was a businesslike approach to the defending the gold medal, and in Sochi the result was a Canadian team that steamrolled its competition.
"We had a gold medal summer camp, we had a gold medal selection process," Babcock said. "All that does is give you a chance, and anybody who's been at these Olympic Games knows how hard it is — basically impossible — to win. And for us to be able to execute on the biggest stage and play the way we did and there was lot of complaints early we didn't score. I thought we were dominant."
Canada never trailed, and there was not one second this team looked like it was in danger of losing, even when it was the third period against Latvia and the score was tied and certainly never during the semifinal game against the United States or the final against Sweden.
Jeff Carter, brought to Sochi for his offence, called what Canada was able to do for six games a "defensive clinic." Three goals allowed, including none in the final two games, make that an understatement.
Beating Sweden 3-0 Sunday exemplified everything Canada did right in the tournament. The Swedes couldn't generate anything because — as defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said — other teams can't score if they don't have the puck.
Swedish coach Par Marts found that out first-hand.
"Canada was much, much better this day," Marts said. "I think they played at a higher tempo, kind of frustration in this team. They had so many, many breakouts I couldn't count them, and you can't play that way against Canada."
It was never about who Canada was playing and always about what Babcock and his players wanted to do. Yzerman looked back over the past 40 years of Olympic, World Cup and Canada Cup teams and couldn't think of another group that dictated the play to opponents more than this one.
"As far as defensively, pucks staying out of the net, quality scoring chances, shots on goal, it was a pretty dominant performance by these guys," Yzerman said. "The coaching staff and players were phenomenal."
Yzerman, who said he wouldn't be returning as executive director for the 2018, even compared this group to the Soviet Red Army teams of the 1970s and '80s that were the class of international hockey.
This Canadian team played with the same methodical, structured style as the Soviets did. The players were more talented than everyone else, and playing such organized, fundamental hockey made them unbeatable.
"It is amazing to see the guys that have the raw talent and ability commit themselves to doing all the little things right," said alternate captain Jonathan Toews, who scored the winner against Sweden. "We knew that's what it was going to take in this tournament to win the championship. And guys were willing to do that. So I would say it's a great team to be a part of and unlike any other team I've really been a part of."
This was unlike any other Canadian team at least since NHL players began participating in 1998. This wasn't about 17 total goals over six games or who scored them — it was about doing what it took to win.
Babcock reminded reporters of that just before he left Bolshoy Ice Dome to march in the closing ceremony.
"Does anybody know who won the scoring race?" Babcock asked, rhetorically. "Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal? See you, guys."
A team-high six points each from Shea Weber and Drew Doughty will be remembered because offence from the back end helped Canada get through some offensive struggles by the forwards. But what will be most memorable about this gold medal is how easy Canada made it look easy every step of the way.
"Right from goaltending all the way out, we didn't give up a whole lot," said captain Sidney Crosby, who was one of the best players on the ice throughout despite having just a goal and two assists.
Crosby's goal didn't come until the second period of the gold medal game, an unforgettable play that finished with a back-hander past Henrik Lundqvist. That came well after he took criticism for not filling the net, much like the entire team did.
"It would've been easy to kind of feel the pressure of not scoring as much and try to force things, and that's probably when we'd end up in big trouble," he said. "We stuck with it and knew what we had to knew and knew how we had to win."
Defence with a great offence was how Canada won. As Yzerman and Babcock were quick to point out, it wasn't like this group went into a shell defensively and let opponents fire away.
"Part of our defence was being aggressive and forechecking and pressuring and closing gaps and not letting you get the red line and get our blue-line," Yzerman. "I think it's, since I've been around, the most impressive display of defensive hockey."
You wouldn't figure a group of stars for defensive pluggers — they're paid to put up points in the NHL. But this wasn't ever about points or offensive production because the gold medal was the prize.
And defensive dominance was the path there.
"Defence is usually not that much fun, but when you're winning it is," Getzlaf said.
By playing three one-goal games and five that were low-scoring, Canada found a way to make suffocating, relentless defence look entertaining. Toews called this an amazing group to watch because players were "all over" opponents."
Goaltender Carey Price, who helped win gold at the 2007 world junior championship, called this the most dominant team he has ever been a part of.
"In all aspects of the game I feel we executed the way we wanted to," said Price, who stopped 103 of the 106 shots sent his way during his first Olympics.
Of those 106 shots, not nearly that many were quality scoring chances thanks to a defensive approach that Crosby lauded for finding a balance between being "patient when we needed to be, but very aggressive when the time came to be aggressive."
It was that balance that got Canada a second straight gold medal but one that was very different from 2010 in Vancouver. There wasn't the same jubilation as players stepped off the bench as the clock hit 0:00 because, unlike in that overtime thriller against the United States, gold was never in doubt against Sweden.
Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson, who finished tied for the tournament lead in scoring with U.S. forward Phil Kessel said that he and his teammates "couldn't really break through a brick wall." Even going in, captain Niklas Kronwall figured they'd have to play a perfect game to have a chance.
"Unfortunately," Kronwall said, "we didn't play a perfect game.”
Against Canada, no one did. And that's what made this one different — maybe even better — than winning gold at home four years ago.
"The last one was relief in Vancouver, there was so much pressure on us," winger Rick Nash said. "Here we came into one of the most hostile environments for Canadian hockey players — Russia — and to win on their soil is special in a totally different way."
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