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Melrose: Canada's defense star of the Olympics

by Barry Melrose

After two wild weeks the 2014 Sochi Olympics have come to an end, and Canada was the last team standing after a convincing win against Sweden on Sunday in the gold-medal game. Obviously if you're a native Canadian like I am it makes you extremely proud to see Canada win gold for the second consecutive Olympics and third time in the last four tournaments.

Each team in the tournament made its own mark and had its own interesting story though. Here is what stuck out to me:


I've never seen a defense dominate as much as this one did, and when I say dominate I mean in all areas of the game. Offensively they scored almost half of Canada's goals and defensively they made life easy for goalie Carey Price. While Price did a great job, Canada went into this Olympic tournament thinking goaltending might be a weak link. I think Price got a lot of help from his defense corps. Canada's defense did a great job with puck movement, picking guys up and making a great first pass out of the zone.

If you look at the goals Canada was scoring early in the tournament, Drew Doughty or Shea Weber were scoring while the forwards struggled. But even when the forwards made plays, like on Jamie Benn's game-winner against the United States, it was set up on a great pass from the blue line by Jay Bouwmeester. The more I watched those guys the more I thought this was how defense is supposed to be played. If you build a perfect defense it has to look something like this one did. Size-wise, skating ability, puck-handling, toughness, compete-level, this defense had all of those things and it's the biggest reason Canada came away with the gold medal.


I do think Canada was the best team in the tournament from the start, but we have to be honest. You can't sit here and say that with Johan Franzen, Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg or Nicklas Backstrom the Swedes aren't a better team than they were Sunday. I think Canada didn't play the best Swedish team it could have played. It just beat whom it had to beat.

Backstrom definitely would have made a difference and helped Sweden's power play, but in the end I don't think it would have changed the outcome. Canada dominated the American forwards and the American forwards are every bit as good as the Swedish forwards. With the way Canada was playing and the way it was built, the only way Canada was going to lose was if the goaltending struggled. That was the only thing Canada needed to push it over the top and they got it.


After watching the United States lose to Canada in the semifinals I was scared the U.S. might not be ready to play 24 hours later for the bronze after such a tough loss. At first it looked like the Americans were ready; they were every bit as good as the Finns in the first period. But as soon as Teemu Selanne scored in the second period the Americans were never in the game again. Finland scored against seconds later and that was that.

That can't be acceptable. I would hope Canada would have done a better job and battled for the bronze in that position, but obviously it's not what you went over there for. It looked like the Americans clearly didn't recover from losing to Canada and just couldn't get themselves back up for the game against Finland. As a coach that's what you're scared of happening. I thought Dan Bylsma had gotten to them because they came out pretty fired up Saturday, but the U.S. needed to score first. They needed something positive and they just didn't get it.

That is not an excuse though. Finland didn't have as many NHL players on its roster and beat the United States soundly and completely. For the Americans to be beaten that badly was embarrassing for the U.S. and they'll have some things to look at now that they're back from Sochi.


I think once you get past Selanne there aren't a lot of players on this team that the casual fan knows, guys like Jussi Jokinen or their goaltenders, all of whom are superb. Somehow, though, the Finns, who have won four medals in five Olympic tournaments with NHL players, always are in the mix for the podium. I think the reason they fly under the radar is because the Swedes get so much attention, the Canadians get so much attention, and for these Olympics in particular the Russians were getting most of the international attention. But tournament after tournament Finland shows it belongs.

This is a proud hockey country. The Finns play hard in every tournament and always play a strong, cohesive team game. We don't always talk about them in the same breath as Canada or Sweden or the United States, but they've shown time and again that they produce players and they'll never be an easy win in these tournaments.


There's no denying that this performance was a massive disappointment for the Russians. This is a team that many talked about as being a gold-medal contender. In the end Russia didn't even reach the semifinals. I really think trying to make a team out of such large groups from the NHL and KHL really created some problems. The players on Russia didn't seem to have the same unity that Canada or Sweden or Finland had. They didn't seem to have a unified front or a unified theme and the star players didn't produce like they were supposed to. This was a team that never really seemed like it was able to gel.

To me Russia's power play was the biggest mystery. It was just anemic despite being one of the most talented units you could put together. I think the problem may have been that Russia's power play had too many of the same type of player. Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin are basically the same player; they both want that spot on the dot or at the hashmarks. Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk basically are the same player in that they both want to bring the puck in from the wall. This team also put Ovechkin on the point and that never worked in Washington because he's too easy to cover there. They were trying to please all of their weapons by putting them on the top unit and it just doesn't work that way. These players needed to be put in different spots and if they wanted to play in their typical position the Russian coaching staff should have built two units. For that power play to be bad is ridiculous with the amount of firepower it had on it.

Russia's defense also was fairly average and certainly not as good as Sweden, Canada or the United States. But I don't think that was the weakness that cost them. They just couldn't score and couldn't gel from the moment the tournament started. Then again, if that goal against the United States hadn't been disallowed we might be talking about something else this week.


Finally I want to congratulate Ted Nolan on his coaching job with Latvia. I played with Ted in the American Hockey League and he's a great guy who did a tremendous job. If some of the bigger countries in this tournament had played with the heart, desire and disciplined structure Latvia played with in Sochi could be a lot of different storylines today. To play Canada as tough as they did in the quarterfinals and to play the whole tournament the way they did was very impressive.

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