Four years have passed since Sidney Crosby scored the most famous goal in Canadian Olympic History. The goal which slipped through the legs of American Goaltender Ryan Miller was immediately dubbed The Golden Goal by commentator Chris Cuthbert, and set off celebrations in Canada from coast-to-coast. The win was the icing on the cake for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada’s most successful Olympics ever, and was the 14th Gold Medal for the country, more than any other country at the games.
Starting this week, those bragging rights are now just happy memories. The Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament begins in Sochi, Russia, and Crosby and the Canadian Team must work to defend their place atop hockey’s international summit. Let’s take a look at the team that Hockey Canada has brought to Sochi, and their strengths and weaknesses.
A position that was once Canada’s strongest, has easily become the country’s Achilles heel in recent years. There is no clear cut number one goalie and the debates over who should be on the team have raged for well over a year now. Going into Sochi, Canada takes Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price, and Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith.
While the pecking order needs to be established, it seems clear that Mike Smith is the third goalie in this three-man unit, and the battle for number one is between Price and Luongo.
Luongo brings the experience factor to the table; after all he was the winning goaltender when Crosby scored his famous goal in 2010. He also was part of Canada’s World Cup winning squad in 2004 (like the Olympics another best-on-best tournament format, unlike the IIHF World Championships). However, Luongo goes into the Olympics on a bit of a slide. In his last five NHL starts he has suffered five straight regulation losses and has an .880 save percentage over that time.
Price is playing in his first Olympics. In fact, he is representing Canada for the first time in any Men’s level competition. He does have a World Junior Gold Medal, but this isn’t a junior level tournament. On the other hand Price comes into the games having a much better season than Luongo. He has been the Habs MVP so far this year, and has been especially red-hot of late. He is 4-1-1 in his last six starts with two shutouts, allowing just seven goals over those six starts, and posting a .967 save percentage.
Canadian coach Mike Babcock has already announced that the two goaltenders will split the first two games of the tournament. But with those games being against Norway and Austria, it is questionable how much the goalies will be tested and how much the coaching staff can learn from those games. Babcock will have to weigh the question of whether to go with the experienced goalie or the hot goalie before Canada’s third game against Finland, and before any medal round games that will follow.
Canada boasts arguably the deepest defence of any team in the tournament. When the reigning Norris Trophy winner is slated to be the team’s seventh defenceman, the quality of the group being brought to Sochi is apparent.
Duncan Keith has won two Stanley Cups, an Olympic Gold Medal, and a Norris Trophy in the last four years. He will be expected to lead the squad and play huge minutes in every situation. It is unclear who will play with Keith on the top pair, but the choice between 2010 Gold Medalist, and 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Drew Doughty and fellow 2010 Gold Medalist and Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber is one that really doesn’t have a wrong answer.
On the second pair, we see instant chemistry with Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues. The pair have been outstanding in helping the Blues to be amongst the best defensive teams in the NHL this season. They are both great skaters, and this combined with their chemistry should make them a great pair on the big ice in Sochi.
The third pairing appears that it will consist of San Jose Sharks defender Marc-Edouard Vlassic and the second choice in the Doughty/Weber question. Vlassic has been a shut-down player for the Sharks this season, and is playing the best hockey of his career. He’s also chipped in 18 points in 59 games this year, and like all the defencemen on this team has good mobility to take advantage of the ice surface.
The seventh defender appears to be P.K. Subban, the reigning Norris Trophy winner from the Montreal Canadiens. Subban could be a power play specialist for the team as he is arguably the most offensively skilled defenceman on the team. He is a great skater, and extremely strong on the puck. Subban also features a howitzer of a slap shot that is a feared weapon on the Habs powerplay. He is sometimes criticized for his defensive game, but Subban is a +6, with solid Corsi and Fenwick stats, while playing an extremely difficult level of competition 5 on 5 for Montreal. He certainly is no slouch defensively, and he could push his way up the lineup if he gets the opportunity.
Rounding out the group, and seemingly destined for the press box, is Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks. The stay at home defender is excellent defensively, and brings a physical game to the ice. He has been a top pairing defender since joining the Canucks in 2010 and produced excellent results.
Team Canada will once again be led by Sidney Crosby. It gets forgotten in the narrative of the 2010 Golden Goal, but until that magical moment Crosby struggled in the medal round of the 2010 Olympics. The coaches couldn’t seem to find the NHL’s best player a winger that he had chemistry with, and he had gone three straight games (against the Russians, Slovakians, and full regulation time vs the Americans) without scoring a single point. To combat the lack of chemistry the Canadians have taken Chris Kunitz, Crosby’s left winger on the Penguins, to play with their superstar in Sochi. Kunitz and Crosby have developed a connection over several years, and the familiarity should be of great help for both players. The first line right wing was supposed to be Steven Stamkos, but he is unable to go in the tournament. Who will take his spot on the lineup has yet to be decided, but possible names include Jeff Carter, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash, and Matt Duchene.
The strength of the Canadian team is the best set of Centres in the entire tournament. Behind Crosby are Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, John Tavares of the Islanders, Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks, and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins. No other country can field four centres of this caliber, let alone the five that Canada brings and owning the middle of the ice will be key for the club.
On the wings Patrick Sharp should play with Toews, while Corey Perry should be put on a line with Getzlaf to take advantage of their club team chemistry. Other key wingers will include Jamie Benn, and Patrick Marleau. Outside of the Kunitz-Crosby, Sharp-Toews, Getzlaf-Perry pairings, how the team will line up will be an evolving process throughout the tournament, and many combinations will likely be tried in Canada’s first three games before a final lineup is set for the medal round games.
Just like any international tournament, Canada enters as one of the favorites. In fact most betting lines have Canada as the number one favorite to win hockey gold in Sochi. This isn’t to say the tournament will be easy, there are no guarantees as Canadian teams learned when they failed to win any medals in both the Nagano and Turin games. This team might be the best in the tournament on paper, but the tournament will be won and lost on the ice. It is now up to the coaching staff to get the most out of the talented lineup, and the players themselves to produce when called upon.
Check in later for previews on the rest of the elite eight of the tournament.
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Main Photo Credit: Harry How