Commentary

No doubting Canada's dominance

All-world defense-first mindset gives hockey nation rare big-ice win at Olympics

Updated: February 23, 2014, 3:52 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- Winning in Salt Lake City ended a half-century slump. Winning in Vancouver was the party of a lifetime. Winning in Russia?

"It feels great," said Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby, his second Olympic gold medal hanging from his neck. "No matter where this game would be played, I think you get up for it. But obviously we all know, being Canadian, the amount of history with Canada-Russia. I think ultimately to come here, bigger ice, different challenges than Vancouver -- everything wasn't perfectly set up for us as it was in Vancouver. But we had to adjust to the ice and everything else. Yeah, it feels great to be able to find a way to win."

Who else but Crosby and Jonathan Toews would you expect to lead the way with a goal apiece Sunday as Team Canada captured Olympic gold with a 3-0 win over Sweden in perhaps its most significant hockey achievement since the 1972 Summit Series.

Why?

Because this wasn't a Canada Cup or a World Cup won at home. It wasn't an Olympic gold medal won in North America. It was proving hockey supremacy on the other side of the ocean for once, erasing the painful memories of Nagano and Torino and finally slaying the perception that Team Canada couldn't win on big ice.

"It's nice to win [overseas] after how many years and after such a depressing situation in Torino and everyone saying that was the reason why, to come back here and win it and prove to everyone that Canada can play on big ice," said forward Rick Nash, a Torino holdover.

"That's one thing that obviously Canada has been scrutinized for in the past," added center Ryan Getzlaf. "It's nice to put that to rest and come over here and play a solid tournament."

To finally solve the big-ice puzzle, Team Canada approached the Sochi tournament with a single, devoted focus: how to defend on the larger ice surface. Nothing else mattered. The offense would flow on its own once a defensive foundation was laid and the players absorbed it.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Toews
Harry How/Getty ImagesJonathan Toews came up big again when the stakes were high.

Three goals against in six games, including back-to-back shutouts in the semifinals and final? Yeah, I'd say the plan worked.

"That was a defensive clinic," said Canada and Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter.

Was that the most impressive defensive effort by a Canadian team in best-on-best competition ever?

"I believe so," said the team's architect, GM Steve Yzerman, who is not often associated with such statements. "As far as defensively, pucks staying out of the net, quality scoring chances, shots on goal, it was a pretty dominant performance by these guys.

"The coaching staff and players were phenomenal. The Russian national teams through the '70s and '80s were pretty spectacular. I don't know that I can say that, but I watched these six games and even though our team didn't score as many goals as we'd have liked, every other facet of our game was fantastic."

No question they got some breaks too. Nicklas Backstrom's ban from the gold-medal game was a huge blow for the Swedes, who were already without Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen. But let's be honest: Sunday's game was a total crush job. Utter domination. While you feel bad for the Swedes and especially Backstrom, his presence in the lineup in the gold-medal game does not change the outcome.

"We were dominant," said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. It started in August with players in running shoes playing ball hockey. "[Getzlaf] said before going out for the third period, 'It's all about the ball hockey, guys. It's all about the ball hockey,'" he added, chuckling.

And what of said coach? Make it two Olympic gold medals, a world junior championship and a men's world title to go along with a Stanley Cup for the Detroit Red Wings coach.

Half the battle in these tournaments is getting the players to buy in. Babcock and his all-star cast of Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins, Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues, Lindy Ruff of the Dallas Stars and former Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger found a way to sell NHL offensive stars to play an unselfish, defensive game that sucked the life out of the opposition.

"I think he instills a lot of confidence in the group," Crosby said of Babcock. "He leads by example and I think you can see that he trusts every guy out there, and the situations he puts them in, he puts them in for a reason. Definitely to have a group come together this quick isn't easy, and everyone's kind of laughing at the ball hockey in August, but you know what, all those little things go a long way sometimes. He definitely did a great job, his whole staff, of preparing us and getting us ready for all the adjustments we needed to make on the big ice."

That buy-in, however, happens only if the leaders show the way. Crosby and Toews were sensational in that vein, sacrificing offensive stats to focus on their two-way games and keeping their best for last, both scoring Sunday in the biggest game of all.

"They're leaders for a reason," said Carter. "Jonny and Sid, they brought it every night. When you've got your top guys going like that, it's pretty easy for us to follow."

It's simple, said Toews.

Backes They're leaders for a reason. Jonny and Sid, they brought it every night. When you've got your top guys going like that, it's pretty easy for us to follow.

-- Jeff Carter, on the play of Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby

"Guys want to win," said the Chicago Blackhawks captain. "I think that's the bottom line. For people to be talking about our team and saying we don't score goals, we're not doing this, we're not doing that, you look at the offense we have, especially up front, our forwards weren't scoring goals, but we could easily go out there and start cheating and trying to make plays and making mistakes and opening ourselves up to give up scoring chances. Guys didn't panic, guys didn't get away from what they were doing. We stayed committed to playing the team game, and we knew that was what it was going to take to win a gold medal. So here we are, standing here with the gold around our necks, and it feels great."

Babcock, perhaps, said it best in his final comment before racing to catch the closing ceremony: "Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anyone know who won the gold medal? See you, guys."

And with that, the Canadian coach got the last word after spending two weeks defending why his team wasn't scoring.

Certainly, people will remember not just Toews and Crosby but Drew Doughty and Shea Weber for their monster performances on defense, the calm and confident Carey Price in goal and the contributions of forwards Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Marleau ... heck, you might as well name every player on the roster.

"It is amazing to see the guys that have the raw talent and ability commit themselves to doing all the little things right," said Toews. "We knew that's what it was going to take in this tournament to win the championship. And guys were willing to do that. So I would say it's a great team to be a part of and unlike any other team I've really been a part of."

And here's the crazy part. Team Canada is better than ever and is not going away anytime soon. Not with Crosby, Toews, Price, Weber, Doughty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Getzlaf, Benn, Corey Perry, Alex Pietrangelo, Carter and Matt Duchene still in their 20s. Throw in a healthy Steven Stamkos, sprinkle the odd Claude Giroux or James Neal in there and wait on Nate MacKinnon and Connor McDavid ... you get the picture. These guys aren't going anywhere. This is the golden generation of Canadian players.

Canada will be the team to beat in South Korea if the NHL decides to participate again. But selecting Team Canada will be a job for someone else. Following his news conference Sunday, I approached Yzerman and asked him if he would take another whirl at it for 2018. The answer was no. It's time to let someone else take a crack at it, Yzerman said.

The stress of this particular assignment was obvious, the Tampa Bay Lightning GM having to deal with not originally naming Lightning captain Martin St. Louis to Team Canada only to put him on when Stamkos had to pull out with an injury. It put a heavy strain on Yzerman, who has always put his country first, made the most difficult decisions and goes out in style with two Olympic gold medals in two tries.

How can you beat that? You don't.

And nobody was going to beat Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics.

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