Friday, 21 February 2014

Defence Wins Olympic Championships

How about that? Jamie Benn, shown above, scores the only goal Canada needed as Canada downed Team USA 1-0 in Olympic men's hockey today. The guy who wasn't invited to the Canadian summer orientation camp scores the biggest goal of this year's Olympic Games for Team Canada thus far. Call me impressed, but I want to point out that this game was played to perfection by the men in red. Head coach Mike Babcock, who has been stressing for a week that the lack of scoring done by the Canadians shouldn't worry anyone, showed why he believed in that idea today as Canada played some of the best defensive hockey this country may have ever seen on the international stage.

Long before this tournament started, there were comparisons made between the favorites to win the gold medal. You heard them all:
  • Finland had exceptional goaltending, but they may be hurt by injuries and lack of scoring.
  • Sweden was a balanced team with a good goaltender.
  • Russia has immense talent, but will carry with them the weight of a nation's hopes and expectations of a gold medal.
  • The United States was young, fast, and had solid goaltending, but had a young, inexperienced blue line in terms of international experience.
  • Canada is bringing an all-star team, but what sets them apart from the rest of the competition is the skill level of their defencemen.
We've seen how that defence corps, particularly Shea Weber and Drew Droughty, have carried this team through the preliminary round with their scoring. Today, we saw a total team effort in shutting down the white-hot American offence that had all the trademarks of a Mike Babcock game plan. Canada gave up chances, but they limited them to few and far between. Team USA found a few seams in the Canadian defence, but adjustments were made and those seams were closed off. The three men behind the Canadian bench - Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, and Ken Hitchcock - got a defensive game out of their team that will go down as one of the best in Team Canada history.

The seven defencemen used today should be dressed on Sunday. No offence to PK Subban and his talent, but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The forward lines should remain the same, and their commitment to back-checking and defence should not be overlooked. I heard two people today say that they thought Sidney Crosby had his best game as a professional player in terms of his commitment to defence. That, readers, is a massive compliment to Sidney Crosby who has been criticized for his "lack of scoring", and those comments should speak volumes about the buy-in that Mike Babcock and his coaching staff are getting from all the players on Canada's roster.

For Team USA, this has to be a somewhat-devastating loss. They came in having scored goals at will in eliminating the Czechs in the quarterfinal. They had gotten good goaltending from Jonathan Quick throughout the tournament, including today, and looked to be a favorite over the offensively-challenged Canadian squad. Heck, giving up a single goal in the semifinal game in the Olympic men's hockey tournament to a country like Canada would make any team ecstatic! But if that goal is the only goal scored in the game, that stings.

It's been said before on this blog, and the mantra will be repeated here once more: defence wins championships. In a short tournament with single-game eliminations, that factor becomes so much larger because a hot goaltender and solid team defence can result in upsets. Sure, Canada is having some trouble scoring goals, but who expected a 56-save performance from an AHL goaltender in a 2-1 Latvian loss to Canada? Again, a good defence will beat a great offence more often than not because of how difficult it is to score goals when you factor in the talent of some of these teams.

Canada advances to the gold-medal game to face Sweden. The Americans will meet the Finns in the bronze-medal game. The gold medals will be awarded on Sunday. Expect Canada and Sweden, who play similar styles of games in these Olympics, to play to a one-goal game that may require an extra period to determine a winner. With Tuukka Rask injured and the Americans stinging from their loss today, expect that game to start as a tight-checking game before a few goals are scored.

In the end, Canada's defence should set them apart as I predict they win the gold medal.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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