Canadian Olympic men's hockey team can make history with gold-medal win

Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock during hockey practice at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in...

Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock during hockey practice at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, on Saturday February 22, 2014. (Al Charest/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:31 AM ET

SOCHI, RUSSIA - Today, no matter the outcome, is the end for Team Canada '14 -- the final event of the Winter Olympics.

This group of stars -- picked at and prodded, brought together for so short a time yet so large a purpose, carrying their own hopes and those of a hockey-obsessed nation -- will each come home with medal, and then they are gone.

Just like that.

They are playing for a place in history -- or the unfortunate chance to be mostly forgotten. And for a team that has grown so close together in so short a time, there is that sense of finality.

"I didn't know a lot of these players before," said Jamie Benn, the surprising Canadian star. "But I've made a lot of good friends pretty quickly. There's a lot of great guys in our group."

Now, it's one and done for Team Canada -- and then back to the NHL, going from one team to 14 different ones. After winning his gold medal for the second straight Olympics, Alex Bilodeau said he had to be perfect for 24 seconds every four years.

Team Canada has more than the 24 seconds, but the notion is similar and repeating the near-perfection of Friday's 1-0 win over Team USA is a challenge of Olympic-sized proportions.

"This is the last time we're going to play together at the Olympics," said Alex Pietrangelo, the impressive Canadian defenceman. "You try and take as much of it in as possible."

It all happens so fast. One day they're NHL stars, the next day they're on a plane to Russia, living in an athletes' village, trying on Canadian colours, playing for the first time together, and when you finally get time to catch your breath, it's down to one game. It's gold or another medal.

In Nagano and Turin, there were no other medals. There was a feeling of hockey emptiness. The last time Canada won silver at men's hockey was in 1994 in Lillehammer, ironically against Sweden, in the famed Peter Forsberg shootout game.

The only connection Forsberg has had to today's game: He is unhappy that Canadians will officiate and had spoken out against it. He's upset, but the Swedish team here isn't. As evidenced in the women's gold-medal game, having a good referee is far more important than having a neutral one.

In the men's final, it will likely come down to a matter of styles.

Canada will have to adjust after playing something closer to an NHL-style game against the Americans. Sweden will have to adjust to Canada after playing its usual waiting game against the similar Finns.

"A lot of us (have been) playing against our teammates," said Pietrangelo. "You start thinking this is the last game we're going to play together at the Olympics. It can be pretty emotional."

If anything, the past two weeks have been eye-opening, not necessary by the quality of hockey in the tournament, but by the defensive strength of the Canadian team. The benching of Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and other moves made by coach Mike Babcock demonstrate the growing separation between Canada and the rest of the hockey world.

It has not been reflected in the Olympic scores but it has been when comparing the depth of rosters and the quality of healthy scratches for Canada, even with John Tavares out of the lineup and Steven Stamkos never able to play.

Sweden lost two players before the tournament -- Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen -- and then lost Henrik Zetterberg to back surgery. Their replacements were nothing like Martin St. Louis: They added Gustav Nyquist from the Detroit Red Wings and Marcus Johansson from the Washington Capitals.

After losing the semifinal game, American coach Dan Bylsma talked about what it was like to play Team Canada. "They have Rick Nash on the fourth line," he said, all but harrumphing. He could have mentioned they had Matt Duchene and Patrick Sharp on the fourth line as well. "We play a lot against Rick Nash. I know what he's capable of."

Had he coached in the West, he might have said the same about Duchene or Sharp.

Babcock, proving to be his own man, didn't play St. Louis a single shift against the USA and with his defence pairs jelling so well, there has been no place for Subban. No other country could bench an Art Ross and Norris Trophy winner. The depth was evident in the third period against the Americans, when the Canadians wore them out.

"It's not about who scores the goals or who blocks the shots or who plays," said Babcock. "It's about winning. It's about Canada. It's about hockey supremacy.

"We like to brag that it's our game? If you think it's your game, you better show it's your game."

There is one game left for gold. No time for mistakes. One game to get it right.

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @simmonssteve


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