Team Canada's defence in the spotlight ahead of gold-medal game
Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, February 22, 2014 9:42AM EST
SOCHI, Russia -- You can't spell Team Canada without the letter "D."
From Sidney Crosby and Corey Perry to Matt Duchene and Rick Nash, the Canadian lineup is stacked with stars. But with goals hard to come by, Canada has forged a dominant defensive identity at the Sochi Olympics to move to within one victory of a second straight gold medal.
"It's hard to get real good players to be as committed as group is defensively," coach Mike Babcock said. "We haven't scored, and yet no one seems to care. It doesn't matter. You just want to have an opportunity."
The opportunity on Sunday is one final game against Sweden, a matchup that seems destined to follow the same pattern of this tournament: low-scoring with not a lot of room to operate.
But unlike any other Canadian team constructed since NHL players began participating in the Olympics in 1998, this group has embraced the defensive mentality to feel comfortable in that kind of environment.
"I think everybody here, regardless of how many points they're putting up during the season, they're able to play strong defence," defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. "A lot of these guys will play shutdown roles, will play penalty kills. But they have an offensive knack, and that's what makes them such special players."
Having the past two Selke Trophy winners in Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron means this isn't just a group of high-powered offensive stars changing their tune to get into a defensive groove. Part of what Canada has done so well is having the best defence by virtue of producing more offensive chances.
"I don't think we've had to play a lot of defensive zone for the most part," Crosby said. "We've done a good job of getting on the forecheck and possessing the puck. It's a lot better playing that way than having to play in your D-zone."
Canada has outshot its opponents 205-105 through five games, a clear sign of just how much the puck has been in the offensive zone. And that's with only nine power plays.
"Canada always want to have the puck, and they keep coming," Swedish defenceman Niklas Kronwall said. "That's pretty much bottom line. Nowadays, they're extremely well coached. They've got a good structure. And they have pretty much an all-star at every position on their team."
When executive director Steve Yzerman and his management staff constructed the 25-man roster, they made it clear that this wasn't an all-star team. It had to be a team.
That philosophy has worked. Patrick Sharp and Rick Nash have accepted jobs on the fourth line and thrived, while defencemen accustomed to playing 20-plus minutes have done more with less.
"It's fun to put on the jersey and do whatever they ask of you," Sharp said. "It's a lot of different roles for guys here as opposed to their club teams. But I think we're all having a blast, we're enjoying playing together, and obviously the best part is when you win games."
Back in August at orientation camp, Babcock and assistant coaches Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock constructed a plan they thought would work in the Olympics. With consultant Ralph Krueger offering advice on the big ice, Hockey Canada understood that relying on offence wasn't the best strategy in a tournament like this.
Communicating it to players was easy, and when they saw how suffocating defence allowed them to control games, it became even more second nature. It just makes too much sense.
"The other team can't win if you don't let them score, right?" Pietrangelo said. "Obviously we want to be creating some more offence, but we seem to be not trying to sacrifice defence to create offence."
Just like with Hitchock's St. Louis Blues, the idea here is that offence gets created with great defence, Pietrangelo said. A forced turnover might cause an odd-man rush the other way, and sustained offensive-zone time can pay off when the defenders are tired on that or the next shift.
Defenceman Duncan Keith has seen that style in Babcock's Detroit Red Wings and knows it's "frustrating." Sharp, a teammate on Canada and the Chicago Blackhawks, bought into the game plan based on a career's worth of experience.
"I know as an offensive player in the NHL that when a team is playing in five-man units and playing really well defensively, it makes your job to score goals that much harder and it makes it very difficult to get to the net," Sharp said.
That's exactly what Canada has done so far, making starting goaltender Carey Price's life much easier along the way. Price hasn't been counted on to make save after save while under siege, and many of Canada's opponents' opportunities have come from the outside.
Sweden's Daniel Alfredsson considers cracking that the key to the gold-medal game.
"Our challenge is going to be breaking down their solid defence," Alfredsson said. "The U.S. didn't really get a lot of great scoring chances (in the semifinal). They were kept on the outside. That's the challenge, to penetrate the neutral zone with speed and get to those second and third chances."
That's the challenge for Canada as well, though Babcock hopes with so many quality scoring chances that the goals will come before his players "run out of time" at the Olympics. Sweden is keenly aware of the ticking time bomb that is the Canadian offence.
"You can't be fooled, they have a lot of firepower up front," forward Daniel Sedin said.
If that firepower breaks through, it could be a long day for goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the Swedes. But what's more predictable is a tight, low-scoring game in which those same Canadian stars continue to take pride in defending.
"That's a sign of a good coaching staff and good hockey players," 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."
Canada's players are undoubtedly buying what Babcock's selling about defence, and it has them one win from a championship. It's a simple philosophy: Goals are good, but not allowing goals is golden.
"We'd like to score," Perry said. "But we learn a lot from these games. We learn how to win."
Because his players believe defence paves the path to winning, Babcock hasn't been surprised by Canada's relentless approach on that end.
"It's about winning, it's about Canada and it's about hockey supremacy," he said. "We like to brag that it's our game? If you think it's your game, you better show it's your game."
If this tournament has proven anything, it's that defence is Canada's game.
"If we rely on making pretty plays, you're not going to win on this ice, especially with how stingy you're able to play defensively, whether it's us or any other team in the tournament," Duchene said. "We're relying on our size, our speed, our strength on the puck and we're playing unbelievable defensively."