If there was any doubt regarding the world’s best hockey team a week and a half ago, there certainly isn’t any now.
Canada put on a dominating performance in Sochi to win gold, squashing any notion that the rest of the world is catching up to them on the ice. After making mincemeat of the U.S. and Sweden in the final two games of the Olympics, the Canadians only distanced themselves from the pack further.
Say what you want about a few close games, but the Canadians never actually came close to losing in Sochi. Even in tight one-goal victories over Finland, Latvia and the U.S., Canada appeared completely in control of things. They trailed exactly zero times the entire tournament.
Their 1-0 win over the U.S. in the semifinals is worth particular mention. The scoreline might indicate an even, there-for-the-taking affair, but anyone who watched the game knows the outcome could have gone only one of two ways.
Aside from maybe the first five minutes, the Canadians thoroughly dictated the pace and controlled play, monopolizing the puck for long stretches in the second and third period. Against the U.S., widely considered to be the second-best team in the world, Canada looked untouchable.
Then in the finals, the Canadians simply cruised past Sweden, winning 3-0 to become the first team to claim back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the era of NHL participation. Like the Americans, the Swedes, who looked like the most dominant team in pool play, never really had a chance. They were outshot 36 to 24, and mustered just four attempts on goal in the final period.
Canada, without a doubt, played its best hockey against its best competition. Rare was the team to attack Mike Babcock’s group, and so for much of the early going Canada was simply taking what it was being given, never needing to go full throttle. The two teams that earnestly faced up against the Canadians, that, for better or worse, tried fighting fire with fire, were smacked on the head for their presumptuousness.
Conventional wisdom might say that’s the only way to beat them. “You don’t defend them, you attack them,” Herb Brooks once said of playing the Soviets. “You take their game and you shove it right back in their face!” That mentality worked for the Americans in 1980, but it certainly did not in 2014. The Canadians play their game better than anyone else can dream of.
They’re simply better equipped to do so. Against the U.S., Mike Babcock deployed a fourth line of Rick Nash, Matt Duchene and Patrick Sharp. Martin St. Louis did not touch the ice. Each one of those four would undoubtedly play first-line minutes for any other country in the world. It’s impossible to man up with a team that long on talent.
The U.S., for example, brought its best squad ever assembled to Sochi, and there are maybe five American skaters who would make Team Canada. Maybe. Patrick Kane is the only lock among them. After tryouts, guys like Joe Pavelski, Ryan Kesler and James van Reimsdyk would be thanked for coming out and then sent home without a spot on the roster. It’s even hard to imagine Ryan Suter, one of the best defenseman in the NHL, cracking Canada’s top-six.
There really isn’t “a way to beat Canada.” There’s no game plan that can exploit some flaw in their roster for there isn’t one to be found. The best a team can do is weather the storm, hope for a misstep that might not come, and try to capitalize on it if it does. Then weather the storm some more. Latvia absorbed 57 shots on goal against the Canadians in the quarterfinals, almost never had the puck in the offensive zone, and probably had just as good a chance to beat them as the U.S.
The Latvians, for their part, were able to score a goal. The Americans hardly ever came close. They were powerless – helpless, even – in cracking Canada’s defense. Late in the game Friday, as push after push fizzled out in the offensive zone, the Americans looked like a horde of desperate little moths batting their wings against a lit-up window. They would never get inside.
With its factory-like production of NHL superstars, Canada is widely considered to be in a league of its own when it comes to hockey. The team’s performance in Sochi was validation. No one – not the Americans, not the Swedes, not the Fins – could really play with the Canadians. The best anyone could do was hang on for dear life.
No other nation, in any other sport, has the type of stranglehold that Canada does on hockey right now. (Except maybe the Netherlands in speed skating?) With back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics (not to mention back-to-back-to-back-to-back for the women), the Canadians have established themselves as the kings of this sport.
They wear their crown with pride.