There is fast and there is faster, which is why hockey, its best players, and its fans win by the NHL’s participation in the Olympics. It also is why Canada is one victory away on Sunday from renewing its patent on the game.
Americans chosen mostly for their speed were unable to out quick the Canadians in Friday’s semifinal. The U.S. team couldn’t get wide, couldn’t get to the middle, couldn’t even get to the backboards with dump-ins, which is the only smart thing to do when the opposition lines up along the blueline and dares you to skate or pass into something stupid.
The Americans didn’t really fall into that trap, yet still couldn’t get a cycle going the entire game or get to a single rebound, not that Carey Price was leaving any regardless.
Perhaps most important in a 1-0 game, good U.S. shooters didn’t have the time to pick a corner on their limited chances, inflating Price’s chest from post to post, or seemingly so, when the Americans hit the goalie almost every time. If it appeared they didn’t shoot enough on their three power-play chances, that was because there were no lanes available to get the puck through.
It had seemed like it might be different this time.
After years of skating with the Canadians, Russians and Swedes, the Americans, who had outscored their first four Olympic opponents 18-4, appeared finally to have a team with hands to match its legs. There also was some reason to believe the Canadians, who had to struggle past Latvia, 2-1 in the quarterfinals, were feeling the pressure, as inevitably they will almost every time they have to put their birthright on the line.
Turned out, Canada was in good shape all along. The coaching today is so obsessive, the players’ willingness to sacrifice so much greater than it ever has been, it doesn’t take many goals to win, either at the Olympic or league level. Possession is four-fifths of hockey law, as the prophet Craig Berube proclaimed on Thursday.
“The U.S. right now looks like it is playing better, looks like it has more chemistry or flow to its game,” had said the Flyers coach. “But Canada has the puck a lot and doesn’t give it up.
“Every game they have played they have dominated with the puck in my opinion, even if they haven’t scored a lot.”
All Canada needed was one goal Friday, and unlike in Vancouver, when its best player, Sidney Crosby, rode to the rescue in overtime against the inspired Americans, this time it could have been scored by anybody.
We know that because it was by Jamie Benn, who made a quick pounce on one of the few loose pucks in the game, flicked it to Jay Bouwmeester, then put his stick down for an early second-period redirect past Jonathan Quick. Thereafter, it was so hard for the Americans to get chances that it felt like they were coming from three goals down, not just one.
Of course, having said that, we’re not so sure that if the USA had gotten the tip and lead, it wouldn’t have equally frustrated Canada. Though perhaps not quite as quick as Canada’s, the U.S. defense was more adept at shot blocking.
Nevertheless, Canada had the goal and the game to lose. There was little chance of that with guys who could skate backwards as fast as the Americans could skate backwards, with forwards coming back so relentlessly there were practically zero opportunities for a fourth US attacker to join the rush.
“Keep the puck out of their hands, control the play,” said Benn when asked about the Canadians’ focus.
It worked for the Flyers in 1976 against the swift Soviet Red Army and works today, better than ever with a defense of Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Alex Pietrangelo and Bouwmeester, plus forwards relentlessly positioned for support.
The Canadians looked like they had been drilled for years, not just coming together last week. Considering the caliber of the competition, this was remarkable, but not really stunning. Most important, it didn't choke the fun out of the game. Not only do you not need a lot of goals to win, they never have been required to keep you riveted, as long as you see guys making plays being stopped by guys making better ones. Some of the best games we ever have seen ended 1-0, and this was one of them.
The beauty of the best NHL players participating at the Olympics or in a World Cup is not just in the spectacular goal or pass, but also in the fast adjustments the stars make to the pace and to each other.
That was an amazing performance by Canada, not that we should have to be surprised to be impressed. As long as the stars still want to be challenged by greater competition, we will want to watch. Gold, silver or bronze.