Sidney Crosby (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Canada will contend for a gold medal repeat largely because of its unparalleled strength at the center position and a defense so deep it'll push the reigning Norris winner to the fringe. But questions in goal still remain.
The most popular Olympic event in Canada is men’s hockey, followed closely by “second-guessing the roster of the men’s hockey team.” While the likes of Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux and Taylor Hall would be the best players on other nations, they couldn’t even crack GM Steve Yzerman’s final roster for Canada. Expectations are, as always, sky-high. And with so many prominent names on the sidelines, the spotlight will be intense.
Canada’s biggest strength comes down the middle, with Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron composing a deadly three-headed attack. All three can produce offense, but it’s their two-way games and faceoff acumen that will make for difficult matchups. Even the deepest opponents won’t be able to get their top scoring lines away from one of Canada’s excellent centers. The pivot position is so strong that young superstars such as Matt Duchene and John Tavares may end up on the wing – though considering who they’ll get to play with, it will not be a hardship.
Along with the skill, the Canucks boast a ton of size on the wings, from internationally savvy Rick Nash to rising star Jamie Benn and 2011 Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry. This team has all the weapons necessary to score and to do so in a variety of ways. The fact the game will be played on a bigger ice surface than the NHLers are used to put a premium on men who could move and the fact Nash has been great in the World Championship and when he has played in Switzerland during the past two lockouts makes him one to watch.
The defense is filled with puck-movers and a reprise of the Duncan Keith-Drew Doughty tandem that was so good in helping the team to gold in Vancouver only makes sense. St. Louis Blues teammates Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo would have easy chemistry together, while the corps is so thick that reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban may have to settle for spot duty as a power play specialist – and what a luxury it will be to have him and Shea Weber on the points with the man advantage. The defenders are evenly split among right- and left-handed shooters, so each can play on his natural side. It’s no coincidence assistant coach Ken Hitchcock employs the same system in St. Louis, with great success.
Canada’s biggest unknown comes in net, where even the two recent gold medal wins have involved a change in starters. Martin Brodeur replaced Curtis Joseph in 2002, while Roberto Luongo came in for Brodeur in Vancouver. Luongo will once again be on the roster in Sochi, joined by two newcomers in Montreal’s Carey Price and Phoenix’s Mike Smith. Coach Mike Babcock will not hesitate to make a change mid-tournament if he feels the team needs a different look.
WHAT HAS TO GO RIGHT?
Canada’s two-way centers, skilled wingers and talented blueliners play a deadly puck possession game that essentially turns half the tournament into a game of keep away, frustrating the opposition and keeping scoring chances-against to a minimum, while not forgetting to pop a couple in amidst all the fancy stickwork. Quick chemistry between Crosby and Pittsburgh linemate Chris Kunitz (a controversial selection) makes Yzerman look like a genius. The goaltending is good enough in a bend-don’t-break sense.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
The all-star talent up front doesn’t come together and 14 incredible forwards look around the room wondering who will get the scoring going. Kunitz fails to produce on Crosby’s line and the wail from Canadian fans about excluding Giroux or Hall becomes a distraction.
THN PREDICTION: 2nd
WHAT HAPPENED IN VANCOUVER 2010?
Team Canada redeemed itself in a big way in 2010, beating Russia 7-3 in the quarterfinal – a team the Canadians lost to four years earlier in the same round – and then edging contender Slovakia in the semis. But, of course, the gold medal game was the classic, with Canada knocking off the United States 3-2 in dramatic fashion, with an overtime goal by Sidney Crosby sending the home crowd in Vancouver into a frenzy.
A BRIEF OLYMPIC HISTORY
The first time NHLers joined the Games, at Nagano in 1998, Canada was expected to top the podium. In the semifinal against the Czech Republic, however, the unthinkable happened. The game went to a shootout and Canada had the unenviable task of scoring on the world’s best goalie, Dominik Hasek. Canada coach Marc Crawford assembled his team of shooters – and left the most dominant offensive forward of all-time, Wayne Gretzky, on the bench. Crawford chose D-man Ray Bourque instead. Canada didn’t beat Hasek once. The Czechs advanced to the final and won gold.