With the Sochi Winter Olympics drawing to a close, here’s what I learned following the men’s ice hockey tournament.
Canada still dominates. At least when it’s a tournament involving all the best professionals. Granted, the Canadian forwards didn’t light it up offensively, stymied in some games by the defensive trapping systems of several opponents. Defensively, however, they were rock solid, while goaltender Carey Price silenced his critics with three shutouts in six games. Earlier in the tournament Canadian coach Mike Babcock was questioned by some pundits and fans over his line juggling and the low-scoring victories, but his club won by sticking with his puck possession system. Most importantly, this was a team that came together quickly, bought into Babcock’s system and were remorseless as the Games advanced. Their 1-0 victory over the high-flying Americans was close only on the scoreboard. The injury-battered Swedes never had a chance in the gold medal game. Canada’s 3-0 victory wasn’t as dramatic as it was four years ago, but was certainly a demonstration of how to play a complete game at both ends of the ice.
Be careful what allergy medication you take at the Olympics. Sweden made to the gold medal game without sidelined forwards Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. Just before the final game, center Nicklas Backstrom was forced to withdraw from the tournament after testing positive for a banned substance. Early reports claim Backstrom was taking allergy medication. Unfortunately, such medication usually contains pseudoephedrine, which is banned by the IOC. He was probably unaware of this but the oversight cost him and his team. It’s unlikely the outcome of the gold medal game would’ve been different, but with Backstrom in the lineup maybe the odds could’ve been a little more in Sweden’s favor.
Teemu Selanne had an Olympic swan song for the ages. Playing in his final Olympic tournament, captaining a team with three of its best forwards (Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and Aleksander Barkov) sidelined, the 43-year-old Selanne led Finland to a bronze medal, defeating the dispirited Americans 5-0. The Finns were coming off a heartbreaking 2-1 loss against Sweden in the semifinal but were determined not to leave Sochi empty-handed. The ageing “Finnish Flash” scored twice, including the game winner on a nifty backhand. This is also Selanne’s final NHL season, giving him one more shot of winning another Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks. Regardless, his performance in Sochi would still cap the career of Finland’s greatest player, and one of hockey’s all-time greats.
The Americans have a big mental hurdle to overcome. American hockey has significantly improved over the past three decades. The United States remains Canada’s biggest hockey rival. Since the turn of this century the Americans are tied with Russia for the second-most gold medals (3) behind Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. They pushed the Canadian men to the limit in the 2002 and 2010 Olympics. They appeared poised this year for Olympic glory. Entering the semifinal game against Canada they dominated every offensive category in the tournmanet, and had a memorable shootout win over Russia in the preliminaries. Everyone expected a big game from them against a low-scoring Canadian team, yet by their own admission they didn’t rise to the occasion falling 1-0 to their rival. Fairly or not, the American men’s team is now saddled with the “choke” label, which they won’t be able to shake until the next Olympics in 2018 (provided the NHL still participates) or the next World Cup of Hockey.
Russian hockey needs an overhaul. As I noted earlier in the tournament, the Russians can produce superstars (Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk) and their goaltending has improved (Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlamov). Unfortunately, they lacked sufficient depth on their blueline and beyond their top two forward lines to reach the gold medal game. They also seem to have some coaching issues, which must be addressed before the next Olympics, provided the NHL still participates. Ignore the nonsense about them being too heavy in KHL talent. Finland, the country which dashed Russia’s medal hopes, had 8 KHL players, one less than the Russians.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia must rebuild. For years both countries were hockey powers in their own right. They’ve produced NHL superstars like Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara. Unfortunately, however, those players are ageing and have likely played in their final Olympics. The rest of their respective rosters contain some good NHL talent, but none which stands out as future superstars to build Olympic rosters around.
Bigger ice equals a better game is a myth. I was among those who believed the larger European ice surface would create better scoring chances in the Sochi Olympics. While there were some lopsided games in this tournament, most were close and low-scoring. Indeed, Canada marched to the gold medal game sitting ninth overall in scoring, even though their roster was heavy in NHL superstar scoring talent. While the Canadians dominated their opposition, it was their goaltending, defense and penalty kill which carried them to Olympic gold.
Less-talented teams will play the trap. And especially on the big ice. The Canadians dominated Norway, Latvia and Finland but were faced with trying to beat a defensive zone trap. Those teams lined up at the blueline, forcing the Canadians to play a dump-and-chase style. Once the Canadians gained the zone, those clubs then collapsed into a defensive shell around their goal, taking away the prime scoring areas. That forced the Canadians to fire the bulk of their shots into a forest of bodies. Sure, we see that trapping style from lesser teams in the NHL, but it was definitely noticeable on the larger ice in Sochi.
The Latvians will go through a wall for Ted Nolan. When it was announced back in 2011 that Ted Nolan was hired to coach Latvia’s men’s national team, some observers lamented how far the former Adams trophy winner had fallen. Turns out the joke was on them. Nolan was hired as the interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres earlier this season but still went to the Sochi Olympics to coach the Latvian men’s team. A little hockey nation expected to be roadkill, Latvia proved a difficult opponent. They threw a scare into Sweden during the preliminary round, upset Switzerland in the qualification round and narrowly lost to heavily-favored Canada 2-1. Nolan was the reason for Latvia’s improvement. To a man the players credited him, noting he praised them and believed in them, which they weren’t used to from previous coaches. Nolan’s given Latvia’s hockey program lessons to their coaches on how simple praise and belief in your players translates into solid effort on the ice.