Men’s hockey: One close call for Canada

Drew Doughty’s goal sets up Canada for Olympic playoff round, but what to do about Crosby?

Some say that hockey is as much a game of numbers as baseball—a series of seemingly random events on ice that can in fact be read as statistical patterns which, in turn, reveal causal relationships between human decisions and outcomes for teams, or in this case, countries.

There’ll be a test on this later. But for now it’s sufficient to know that the meaning of Sunday’s nail-biting, bottled-up game between Canada and Finland can be distilled into a single, humble, figure: one.

One, as in: one goal is not a sufficient lead to carry you through most of a game against a team as fast, as rugged and as talented as Team Finland. Or: one decent offensive flurry by an exceedingly patient team that to that point had gotten just 11 shots through to goaltender Carey Price. Or: one deft tip by Tuomo Ruutu, which let the Finns hit the locker room after two with a tie with the odds-on favourite to win the gold medal.

But conversely: one goal by Drew Doughty at 2:32 of overtime, enough to allow a nation to breathe again, while sparing Team Canada the psychodrama of a quarter-final match against the Russians, whose 1-1-1-0 record does no justice to their on-ice performance, and who will almost certainly beat Norway in a playoff qualifier.

“We needed to pick it up,” Doughty acknowledged afterward. “We were a little disappointed with that goal we let in at the end of the second. We just wanted to get it back, so we decided to pull up our socks, keep possession of the puck and create good opportunities.

“They really played good defence.”

Doughty is one pleasing story on a team that, though hardly in crisis, is not exactly firing on all cylinders. He has scored four goals in three games, all at opportune moments, while sacrificing nothing in the way of defence and cementing his reputation as one of the best big-game players this country has known. As Canadian coach Mike Babcock put it: ”Drew’s got a heavy body, so he can really play without the puck. But he’s really dynamic with it.”

You could say the same of Sidney Crosby, who figured in just two of his team’s 11 goals during the round robin, and who now poses something of a riddle to his coaches. Team Canada management brought along Kris Kunitz, after all, because he and Crosby, both Pittsburgh Penguins, are one of the most productive duos in the NHL. But in Sochi, where many teams are playing a meticulous defensive game, opposing players have contained Kunitz and Babcock has been unable to find another winger who complements the captain nearly so well.

On Friday, against Austria, he tried Martin St. Louis, who played well but came up empty. On Sunday, he had Crosby centering Jamie Benn, a speedy young forward with the Dallas Stars, and Patrice Bergeron, a natural centre and one of the most intelligent players in the game.

The result was a wash. No goals for, and none against while the trio was on the ice. Yet Crosby continues to do things no players can, his brilliant passes squirting past his linemates before they realize they’re coming. Opposing goaltenders still quiver whenever he’s on the ice.

Back in 2010, when Crosby got similarly poor results for his hard work, Babcock had seemed faintly irked when asked why. He was no less pleased when the question arose last night, saying: “Everyone evaluates Sid on scoring. I evaluate Sid on winning.”

Those questions will keep coming up, though, with the quarterfinals in the offing and a Finnish blueprint available on how to contain the defending Olympic champions. There was plenty of talk after the game about how the Finns jammed up the middle of the ice – preventing Canadian forwards from entering their zone with any kind of speed – then waited for the one opportunity they needed.

And truth be known, Finland is not even the best team in the tournament at doing this. Canada gets two days off, but on Wednesday will face the winner of a qualifying-round game between Switzerland and Latvia.

Assuming heavily favoured Switzerland wins, the Canadians will be looking down the barrel of a team that finished with as many points as Russia – six – yet did so by scoring just two goals in three games. And the number the stingy Swiss gave up?

You guessed it: one.




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Men’s hockey: One close call for Canada

  1. For once i have to agree with grapes…the big ice sucks; especially if your opponent is not as deep or as skilled as team Canada – such as the game Finns. Even sadder though is watching the Russians playing the same way for long stretches. It’s too early to say definitively, but other than the Russian vs USA game, i found the games in Vancouver far more entertaining. Still, the best is yet to come.
    Funny thing with Crosby not being an easy guy to find line mates for, but it isn’t all that unique for players of his calibre. Hands up anyone who can name at least a couple of guys who were regulars on any team Canada line that included Gretzky.[ i'm not sure even Lemieux was a regular line mate through out the tourney in 87]
    Maybe they should try Sid on the wing with Bergeron at centre, or even on Getzlaf’s wing with Perry? Either that or try giving him a big skilled winger like Nash? Failing all that just give him more ice time with anybody.
    But i can’t see the sense of what they did today, putting Kunitz out there w/o Crosby and sitting out St Louis. So yank Kunitz for good please. For that matter Subban should not be sitting either. Hamuis looks a step too slow out there for my liking.

    • I had to agree with Grapes today too regarding the Crosby line. Stop changing it up. Pick a number one line and stick with it (of course, it might be too later for that strategy – the time to set a line and give it time to gel was the round robin, not now).

      I agree with you on Kunitz and Hamhuis too. Saw a tweet that summed it up quite nicely today, I thought. How long would a GM in the NHL keep his job if he traded Martin St. Louis and P. K. Subban straight up for Chris Kunitz and Dan Hamhuis? Exactly.

      • I’m not sure. Crosby could play with just about anyone. What line would you put him on then? I think i’d put a ggod defensive sniper like Carter back on his line, put Toews and Sharp back together where they belong. Who gets what winger is a toss up. Nash might help Crosby out some, or just leave that little fireplug St. Louis out there with him.
        Why on earth we left either Staal or Giroux is a mystery to me. They both can skate and are arguably more skilled than a couple of the current roster members

        • Oh, I agree that Crosby’s good enough to play with anyone, and I don’t tend to share the seeming panic of the nation over the fact that he hasn’t scored yet. I just worry sometimes that the coaching staff is over-thinking things. Having so much depth is great and all, but I worry that because the coaches have so many options, they feel compelled to keep playing with all their options. “Hmmmm, Crosby didn’t score in the first game. Let’s change the top line. Gee, Crosby didn’t score in the second game. Let’s mess with the top line again…”

          I do trust Babcock though, so that gives me comfort. It may have sounded kinda trite, but I thought Babcock made a good point about being less concerned about whether Crosby is scoring than he is with whether Crosby is winning. They’ve just got to avoid getting caught up in the temptation to constantly move things around in search of perfection. For most teams, those two extra roster spots this year are great, because they allow you to have a couple more guys to cycle in in case of injury (or, potentially, a disastrous performance by someone). However, for team Canada, our depth is such that those two extra guys are guys who’d make the top 20 of just about every other team in the tournament. The coaches have such a wealth of talent that they may fall into the trap of never being satisfied, and always thinking things could be better if they just keep tinkering.

          Then again, I also think they’ve got to get Kunitz off the ice, and I’d like to see Subban dressing every game too, so what do I know.

          • To be fair to the selection guys they did have a tough job, and Kunitz looks to be their only real goof. Not sure why they took Hamuis, other than he’s steady.[ i guess it was a matter of also needing another left handed shot on the BL]
            I’m not that worried. Mainly because i see other good things happening even if Crosby isn’t scoring. I’m not a big fan of his[ mind you he's a hell of a player on the smaller ice] and i’d have no difficulty in pickng both Tavares and Toews before him on my team. That said, i’d hate see him on the other side of the ice. But what do i know either?
            Interesting to compare this team and the 87 one. Far more talented pluggers on that one – two of them Sutters i think. But even there they used guys like Hawerchuk and Gilmore as extras. Best Canadian team ever put together even accepting we really shouldn’t compare eras.
            edit: funny how memories are so faulty. I went back to look at the last game of the series. I’d hve to amend that to best and most exciting hockey i’ve seen. It’s obvious present day athletes have continued to improve. I’d say Webber, Doughty and Keith would have made that team for sure. Not sure if any of that D would make this team other than Bourque and Coffey…maybe Murphy. Had to love the pluggers on that team though…Sutter, propp and Tocchet. Awesome role players too…Gilmore, Hawerchuk and Gartner.
            Goal tending looked almost amateurish by comparison. Although Fuhr was an incredibly talented goalie when he had to be.

          • Interesting Fact: Shea Weber is actually capable of shooting a puck fast enough that it will travel back in time and end up in the net in that 1987 game.

          • Now now, i’m sure if you asked Fuhr whether he’d rather have faced Macinnis’s shot or Webers he’s have gone meh!What is striking though is how only 15+ years on so many other guys can shoot the puck as hard or harder than Macinnis. :)
            One area that isn’t advancing at the same pace is hockey smarts or human creativity. There’s still no replacement for the vision of either Gretzky or Lemieux in that sense. I’m not sure you can teach what they had – it’s a gift.

          • Well, comparing eras is virtually impossible, of course, but even on the vision/hockey smarts thing, I wonder how much it’s a case of the Crosby and Toews’ cohort not advancing, versus the defence and goaltending advancing more, relatively speaking. How much is it that forwards aren’t improving, versus it being harder to score against goaltenders today (if you argue that goaltenders today, while perhaps less impressive in terms of reflexes and the amazing save, are better in terms of positioning, and therefore don’t need to make the amazing reflexive save as much today)?

            One thing I’m pretty sure of is that today’s NHLers, on aggregate, are better ATHLETES than the NHLers of days past. I also wonder what the effect of the globalization of the game has had. A Gretzky or a Lemieux are singular individuals, but the breadth of the pool of players from around the world is much greater today than even in their era, so one wonders how the increasing prevalence of Russian, and Swedes and Czechs… has changed the ground rules.

          • I’d agree with that; defencemen and D systems have advanced considerably for sure.[ look at some of the pylons Gretzky got to waltz around early in his career]
            Don would take your last point and turn it into a rant about how furriners have short circuited any future Gretzky’s and Lemieuxs.
            I have a friend who actually plays[i don't] who claims the game has totally changed. Guys like Taylor Hall are picked purely because they are the best athletes. He skates like hell pushing the puck ahead of him but has pretty lousy stick handling skills, takes short 35 second shifts, and no more. They’re increasingly like Olympic sprinters. I wonder if we will ever see another WG or ML in North Americas again?

    • Exactly. I don’t know where people get this idea from that the big ice “opens things up” and “allows more room for skilled players”. The wider rink means you spend more time farther away from the net than you would on an NHL size rink. Also, with the nets pulled out further, there’s more real estate behind the net and less in front of it. The entire offensive zone is distorted as a result. You spend less time in scoring position, your shots tend to be from worse angles, and the games tend to be tedious and extremely systems oriented, with little appetite for risk-taking.

      • It’s taken me a while to come around to it.[ us progressives you know, always chasing shiny European ideas like big ice and proportional rep]
        I think watching the Russians clog the middle did for me. Big ice probably is exciting if both teams are well matched. I expect the Canada USA clash to be a real doozy…maybe the Russians too if e get up a couple and they have to go for it.

  2. Firstly, the Olympic Ice is exactly what hockey in North America needs, precision passing, offensive defencemen. It is a complete game involving all five skaters. I have been totally entertained throughout the tourney. As a former player in the Western Hockey League I was firmly in Don Cherry’s camp until recently. Our beloved NHL has become stifling and unimaginative, played by highly skilled, big players possessing better skills and speed than players of the old NHL. Watching Doughty and Weber move up into the play and contribute has been outstanding and, furthermore, allows our players to use those advanced skills and speed to great advantage. Our coaches are the best in the world, and, given the time, would figure out offensive schemes to capitalize on the extra space. Oh ya, no stupid, staged, ridiculous gimmickry based face-off fights that only serve to embarrass hockey purists. If you need to fight on the ice do so as a result of competition and pursuit of success.

  3. Big surface less scoring? Perhaps. The “build up”/ systems game in FIFA soccer on the big field can be numbing. We are seeing some of that here. Also, when opponents play like they are in a 60 minute shut down penalty kill it can make for some boring hockey. We just have to be patient. The goals will come.

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