SOCHI, RUSSIA - As he watched Canadian athletes from other sports triumph at these Sochi Games, Team Canada coach Mike Babcock became inspired and enlightened.
And from it, he found a source of motivation for his gold medal-chasing men’s hockey team, one that left a good American opponent blinded by its speed in Friday’s 1-0 semi-final win at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
On the same surface where Canadian women had landed a blow to the chin of the U.S. just 24 hours earlier, the men did their part in showing who is boss of the North American game.
They’ll get the chance to make the statement global on Sunday when they attempt to defend the gold they claimed at home four years ago. Sweden will provide the opposition in the Olympic final this time around.
In Babcock’s mind, the Canadians have made it this far buying into the concept of sacrifice rather than coasting on their superstar agendas. In other words, it’s taking an Olympian effort.
“Just watching the other athletes out there compete and they spent four years of their lives (preparing) and you know how important these Olympic Games are,” Babcock said following a game that was far more entertaining than the final score would suggest. “These medals are hard to come by and you want to make good on your opportunities.”
“It’s hard to get really good players to play defensively.”
In five consecutive wins, none a thing of singular beauty, Team Canada has stuck to a plan so foreign to the one that has made the players untold millions back home.
They are playing defence like it is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and they are embracing the challenge of forgetting about lighting up the scoreboard. If it hasn’t always been easy on the eyes, it has been effective.
So on Friday, in a Russian rink sprinkled with Canadian fans — including the golden girls from the night before — there was Sidney Crosby, skating with dizzying speed at times, not scoring but creating and always hustling to the back check.
There was goaltender Carey Price, probably the biggest Canadian question mark heading into the Games, making a handful of big saves and at least matching stellar Jonathan Quick at the other end of the ice.
There was forward Jonathan Toews, relishing the opportunity and success of shutting down U.S. sniper Phil Kessel, which went a long way toward stunting the momentum the Americans had brought into the game.
And there was big forward Jamie Benn re-directing a second-period point shot from Jay Bouwmeester for the game’s only goal. There were plenty of other more potent scoring opportunities from higher-profile players, but welcome to Team Canada, working-man edition.
If it was an individual sport, all of those performances and more were medal worthy. In a team game, it’s all part of the process Babcock felt would be necessary to bring back the gold from a tournament so different in style and atmosphere than the one in Vancouver.
“We’ve got a great opportunity, it’s what we’ve worked to do,” Canadian captain Crosby said after a fifth consecutive game in which he was held without a goal. “Hopefully, we’ll find our best when we need it most.”
That opportunity is meaningful on many levels, including both the prospect to repeat and also become the first North American team laced with NHLers to win Olympic gold on the big, oddly configured European ice surface.
Against Team USA, the Canadians relished the opportunity of being sprung free to skate and unleash a game the way it’s meant to be played. And the Americans, so confident of avenging the overtime loss in 2010, had no answer.
“They came at us with 20 guys,” U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said. “They came at us with speed and they came at us for 60 minutes. That was as fast a game as I’ve ever been a part of and we weren’t able to counter.”
In all likelihood, the Canadians will be forced to throttle down once against the Swedes, who eked out a 2-1 victory over Finland in Friday’s other semifinal. But here’s the thing about that assignment: Canada has spent most of the tournament playing that way already.
“We’re confident, we’ve played tight games,” Bouwmeester said. “The goal when we got together in the summer was for everybody to be on the same page. I think we’ve done that.”
It seems almost incredible that the Canadians would get this far without goals from big guns such as Crosby and Toews, but given the nature of the international game, they’ve had to adjust and done it well.
“It’s going to be much like this one,” Benn said of the showdown with the Swedes. “Low-scoring, tight defence and you’ve got to capitalize on your chances.”
For all the criticism that hockey gets in some quarters for the attention it takes away from other sports, this team of millionaire NHLers is embracing the challenge of trying to match other Canadian efforts at the Games.
“It was just work ethic,” Toews said. “We did the things you need to do whether you are winning a Stanley Cup or an Olympic gold medal. We’ve got a couple of gold medals for the curling teams and the women’s hockey team in the last couple of days.
“Now we’ve got a chance to follow their efforts.”
IS PRICE RIGHT?
Now that Carey Price has surrendered just three goals in the four games that he’s played for Team Canada in these Olympics, has the question been answered?
Is goaltending this team’s weak link?
Helped by a stern and stellar defence in front of him, Price earned a 31-save shutout in Friday’s 1-0 win over Team USA and takes some confidence into Sunday’s gold-medal date with Sweden.
“I’ve played in front of lots of good goalies, but (Friday) he was great,” Canadian forward Jamie Benn said. “He’s so calm. Nothing really fazes him. Even on the chances they did have, he made some good saves.
“He just was never really out of position and I think when you watch him, that’s impressive.”
It’s clear that Team Canada is playing with faith in front of Price, comfortable in having the Montreal Canadien as its last line of defence.
“I told Price right after the game that he controls the whole pace of the game,” Canadian forward Ryan Getzlaf said. “When he eats pucks and swallows them and gets those faceoffs, he slows everything down for us and calms our team down.”
The feeling is mutual, it seems.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in that group in front of me,” Price said. “There’s a lot of winners in that dressing room. They all know how to play in tough situations.”