SOCHI – The Canadian players should be comforted by the fact that in their next game they’ll face a goalie who won the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup less than two years ago. At least they know that guy.
In fact, familiarity with the opposition might be just what this team needs right now. Because playing against a bunch of minor leaguers with long names that end in ‘s’ hasn’t been a big recipe for success. It must be difficult, in some ways, being a Canadian. You go into every game knowing that your opponents are intent on playing the game of their lives. And when they go against USA in the semifinal Friday night, they’ll face a team with revenge on their minds. Adding another level to the rivalry is the fact that the two teams will face off, again, in the gold medal game in the women’s tournament Thursday night.
Perhaps the increased level of competition will bring out the best in Canada’s team. More importantly, perhaps it will help them find the back of the net a little more often. “The team we’re playing seems to score easy,” Babcock said, “and we haven’t scored easy.”
The reason for that in the quarterfinal was 21-year-old Kristers Gudlevskis, a Tampa Bay Lightning farmhand who had the game not only of his life, but of his future children’s and grandchildren’s lives. Truth be told, this game was USA-Sweden in women’s hockey with a goalie who could stop the puck. The analytics crowd must have had a field day with this one, largely because the Canadians had the pucks on their sticks almost the entire game.
(As an aside, defenseman Shea Weber almost took the entire Latvian team out by himself. Unlike NHL players, they clearly don’t have the NHL Center Ice package, since they continually threw themselves in front of Weber’s slapshots. “Hopefully, nobody was hurt,” Weber said. “Obviously I hit a couple and they had trouble getting off, but you don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”)
So should Canadians be happy that their team averaged almost a shot every minute in the game or that it took more than 53 minutes to get two pucks past a kid who was playing the equivalent of Jr. B hockey in Latvia last season? Probably a little bit of both, but as Babcock said, he would have preferred if his team had won 7-1, but can take some positives out of the fact that his players continued to press on even after being continually frustrated by Gudlevskis.
“We’ve got quality players who have had quality opportunities, really good looks, but haven’t scored,” Babcock said. “It’s my experience over time with playoff-type hockey, this stuff happens. In the end, though, you usually can’t keep the skill guys who score and are determined down. So I’m optimistic to say the least.”
That optimism might be tempered by the fact that Canada will have to do without the services of John Tavares, who was playing well and making things happen despite minimal ice time. Tavares left in the second period with a knee injury after what looked like an innocuous hit along the boards from Arturs Kulda and is out for the rest of the tournament. That will likely open a spot for Matt Duchene, although Babcock could opt to dress eight defensemen and go with P.K. Subban, but that would be a longshot.
The Americans, meanwhile, are flying offensively. They’ve scored 19 goals in four games, not including their shootout winner against Russia in the preliminary round of the tournament. In fact, Phil Kessel and his sister, Amanda, a star forward for the American women’s team, are currently outscoring Canada’s entire forward corps by an 8-6 margin. (For that matter, Weber and Drew Doughty are outscoring their own forwards 7-6.) And three of those goals from Canadian forwards came off the stick of Jeff Carter in a 6-0 blowout of Austria in the preliminary round. In all, 10 Canadian forwards, including the injured Tavares, have failed to score a goal.
“The puck just seems to be going in the net for them,” Babcock said. “I’ve watched some of their action and they seem to be scoring. The (Joe) Pavelski line seems to be just flying and filling the net. We haven’t done that.”
After more than a week of games that have provided everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, the real meat of the tournament begins now. The Americans have their first chance to win a medal on non-North American soil for the first time since 1972 and the Canadians for the first time since 1994. Those hoping for an epic showdown between Canada and USA in the gold medal game will get their wish one game early.