Lessons from Canada's OT win
SOCHI, Russia -- Canada rolled undefeated to the top of its Olympic grouping with a 2-1 overtime win over Finland on Sunday, but that doesn't mean the questions will stop for a Canadian team that continues to be superb defensively but more than a little out of sync offensively.
Indeed, in spite of this win, you know there's a veritable national referendum brewing north of the 49th parallel on what to do with Chris Kunitz, who should play with Sidney Crosby and whether P.K. Subban deserves another chance.
Here's a look at the final game of the preliminary round.
How big was this win?
OK, hold out one hand. It represents Russia. Hold out the other. It represents Switzerland/Latvia. By dropping this game, the Finns dropped down to the fourth seed, and while they earned a bye to the quarterfinals with two wins and an overtime loss, they will now play the winner of the Russia-Norway qualifier. With all due respect to Norway, the Finns are staring at a likely quarterfinal date with the hosts, and that's a tall order to consider. Canada, on the other hand, after its win Sunday, will face the winner of Switzerland-Latvia. The Swiss will be heavy favorites against Latvia, but either way, that has to be an easier route to a medal game than playing the Russians. Now, you have to beat good teams to win a gold medal, that's a fact. And Canada faced Russia in the quarterfinals four years ago in Vancouver after having to play a qualification game against Germany that it believed was important to its evolution in that tournament. But without that extra game this time around and given the uncertainty with where the Canadians are offensively, having a lesser opponent to deal with in the quarterfinals will, in theory, give Canada that extra breathing room to get into some sort of rhythm in terms of getting its star-laden lineup to start scoring like stars. One thing is for sure: We won't get a U.S.-Canada gold-medal final this time, but they could meet in the semifinals. And we could get gold-medal final between Russia and either the U.S. or Canada.
What's up with Canada's offense?
Well, not much really. Drew Doughty (see below) scored both goals for Canada on Sunday, and now through three games, Canadian defensemen are outscoring the forwards 6-5. And when you consider one forward, Jeff Carter, has three of those five, well, you get a sense of how little production is coming from a lineup that at the start of the tournament was being touted as one of the best Canadian groups ever. Sunday's performance will only intensify the debate over (A) who should be playing at all and (B) who should be playing with whom. Crosby picked up an assist on the first Canadian goal Sunday and has, as usual, been creating chances, and we didn't have any problems with his new linemates, Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn. The Patrick Marleau-Jonathan Toews-Carter unit was the best on the ice Sunday (Carter picked up the lone assist on the Doughty winner and at one point blew by Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta on the right side, narrowly missing a goal) but the other two lines were nonfactors. Against a Finland team that was banged up, the Canadians managed a pedestrian 27 shots through 62:32 and rarely forced netminder Tuukka Rask out of his comfort zone. Head coach Mike Babcock has time to mull this over, but does he reinsert Martin St. Louis for the quarterfinals, and if so, who comes out? Fair or not, Kunitz will continue to be the popular choice from outside the room. As for defending Norris Trophy winner Subban, it's hard to see him getting back in the lineup given how well the team is playing defensively and how much Doughty and Shea Weber are contributing offensively from the blue line.
Finns' firepower fizzling
You have to hand it to the plucky Finns (and really, how many hundreds of times has this gritty hockey nation been thusly described over the years?) because they have overcome a lot to shoulder their way into a spot in the quarterfinals. Their top two centers, Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, stayed back in North America due to injury and then they lost top-line winger Aleksander Barkov to injury after the tournament started. The Finns still play a structured, disciplined style of game, and with Rask playing as well as he did Sunday, they are going to be a handful for anyone. But the bottom line is that even when they are healthy, they traditionally don't score all that much in these kinds of events. Sunday they tied the game on a great deflection by Tuomo Ruutu late in the second period, and then in the waning moments of the middle frame they had two more good chances to score. But at the end of the day, they managed just 15 shots. Mikael Granlund led the way with four shots, but they're going to need to find a way to generate more than that if they're going to have a hope of moving on in this tournament, especially with a date with Russia in the offing.
Starting the stoppers
Both teams went back to goaltenders who started the tournament and then sat out in their respective second games. Hard to argue with the decision on either one, and it would be a shock if we didn't see Rask and Carey Price back between the pipes for the quarterfinals on Wednesday. On Sunday, Rask stopped 25 of 27 shots and during the first and through to the final minutes of the second he was crucial to keeping the Finns within a goal. Rask's stop on a Kunitz blast from the slot after a gruesome turnover in the Finnish zone was particularly memorable. Not much Price could do on the first Finland goal, as it was deflected in front by Ruutu. But he denied the Finns on the aforementioned scoring chances, including a shoulder stop on a hard shot by Juhamatti Aaltonen from the right side. Carey's lone stop in overtime was a big one, too, as he got a blocker on a hard Sami Salo shot not long before Doughty ended the game. With a team as good defensively as Canada has been -- they've allowed just two goals in three games -- it's not so much having a goalie who stops 40 but rather having a goalie who stops the few quality chances that come his way. That will be the case if, as expected, Switzerland gets by Austria in the qualification round and meets Canada in the quarterfinals.
Drew Doughty for MVP
Doughty told us shortly before the Olympic break about his experience in Vancouver and how he had to be told by executive director Steve Yzerman to play his game and not worry about mistakes. A lot of time has passed since then, and Doughty has won a Stanley Cup and was on a short list for playoff MVP in 2012, and his play thus far in Sochi has been electrifying. He now has four goals and two of them have been game winners. He also has an assist and his five points put him in third place in Olympic scoring. Playing with Weber, the two are a dominant force on the Canadian blue line. Is an Olympic MVP in the offing?