Men's hockey: Offensive Americans? We'll gladly take 'em - Macleans.ca

Men’s hockey: Offensive Americans? We’ll gladly take ’em

Who knows if Team U.S.A. will beat Canada? But at least they play hockey we recognize.

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Canada defenceman Shea Weber celebrates his goal against Latvia. (Nathan Denette, The Canadian Press)

Canada defenceman Shea Weber celebrates his goal against Latvia. (Nathan Denette, The Canadian Press)

It will surely come as a relief, playing a team that skates up the ice and shoots and hustles back  in a meaningful exchange of scoring chances.

Because the teams that don’t play like the Americans—and boy, are there lots in Sochi—have brought Canada’s men’s hockey team a lot closer to Russian-style ignominy than any of the players and coaches in this group care to admit.

Norway stayed within two goals of the Canadians. Finland took them to overtime. And Latvia—Latvia!—was within a fortuitous bounce of sending the defending Olympic champions home to a purgatory of angst and never-ending hockey summits.

Instead, the Dream Team escaped via the hatch it has relied on too many times in the past four games, viz., timely goals from the blue line. The saviour this time was Shea Weber. His howitzer on the power-play broke a 1-1- tie with less than seven minutes left in the game, and gave him three goals in the tournament —more than anyone on his team has scored save Drew Doughty, the defenceman who bailed out Canada the last time, against the Finns.

So, just in case the CBC hasn’t drummed it into your head already, there is a lesson here: Find a good goaltender, find players who will work hard and listen, and you can ice a team that has every chance of knocking off the beasts of an Olympic hockey tournament.

The wide rinks in Europe will help: both Norway and the Finns were content to let Canada carry the puck around the perimeter at the Bolshoy Ice Palace, then box the champs out of the crease area every time they got what looked like a genuine scoring chance. And it’s a downright requirement to have a goaltender like Finland’s Tuukka Rask, a mainstay of the Boston Bruins: the Finns were outshot 38-22 by Russia on Wednesday, yet they emerged as 3-1 victors.

The Latvians don’t have Rask, of course. But they did have a man who seemed to think he was Rask. His name is Kristers Gudlevskis, and he’s a sometime East Coast Hockey Leaguer whose team on Wednesday left him on the hook for 57 shots. To say he seized his moment is a criminal understatement—as egregious as the neutral zone defensive lapse that allowed  forward Lauris Darzins to go one-on-one against Carey Price, roofing a backhander.

After that, the score remained deadlocked for nearly 40 minutes, and as Sidney Crosby (no goals, two assists) put it afterward: “In a 1-1 game anything can happen.”

Indeed, the Latvians then forced Price to make two impressive saves late in the second, including a blocker stop through a screen against defenceman Arturs Kulda, who came in and fired the loose puck.

In all, it will go down as a masterpiece for Ted Nolan, the well-travelled and mercurial coach of the Buffalo Sabres, who had been running the Latvian men’s team before to getting his third kick at the can in the NHL.

“These players never stop working,” Nolan said after the game. “To play [Canada], on of the best teams in the world, as tough as we did, I was just extremely proud of them.”

Canada, meanwhile, moves on to its semi-final game against the United States—the one team at these Olympics, coach Mike Babcock notes, that seems to have no trouble putting the puck in the net. They’ve scored 20 in the tournament to date, including the five they popped Wednesday night in their quarter-final against the Czechs.

There’s no telling whether this at times bemused-looking Canadian side can match that kind of offence, or keep the Americans off the scoresheet. But if nothing else, it will be a welcome change of pace.

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