VANCOUVER – Well, haven’t we learned our lesson. All of the focus going into these Olympics was on the dream final between Canada and Russia and the dream matchup of Sidney Crosby against Alex Ovechkin.
Well, the dream final was actually a quarterfinal and the matchup was pretty much ruined by Rick Nash and Shea Weber. Neither Crosby nor Ovechkin registered a point in Canada’s shocking 7-3 dismantling of the Russians. Crosby was almost a non-factor and Ovechkin was an enormous factor, but in a really bad way.
For a player who seems to love physical play as much as Ovechkin does, he certainly didn’t seem to look as though he wanted to get too involved in the game, unless you count trying to stickhandle through a battlefield and continually turning the puck over getting involved in the game.
It didn’t help that Russian coach Slava Bykov turned in one of the most boneheaded coaching performances in recent history. Despite having the last change, Canadian coach Mike Babcock managed to get his forward line of Jonathan Toews between Mike Richards and Nash and the defense unit of Weber and Scott Niedermayer out against Ovechkin’s line at will.
“Shea Weber is one guy we play against who makes it hard on Pavel Datsyuk,” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock. “Pavel is one of the best players that I’ve ever coached and Shea is such a big man and he can play with and without the puck and he plays hard. So we really felt that was an important matchup for us because of his size.”
After not getting a single goal from any of his defensemen in the first three games, Babcock got an offensive explosion from the back end against the Russians. All told, defensemen chipped in two goals and four assists in the game and defensemen got points on five of Canada’s seven goals.
But it was also the play of the Toews line that was instrumental and will continue to be going forward for Canada. The line was very physical and when it wasn’t hitting, it was controlling the puck and keeping it off the sticks of Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Semin. Nash was particularly good on Ovechkin.
“(Ken) Hitchcock told me (Tuesday) night I would be playing against him; he said it would be a long night, but it was fun,” Nash said. “A big part of our plan was to try to keep the puck as much as we could in their end of the ice.”
The Canadians are clearly hitting their stride as the tournament progresses and their overall game has improved immensely in the past week. Babcock seems to have finally found four lines that can work together and his defense pairings are looking far more comfortable together than they did early in the tournament. Boyle, who assisted on the first goal and scored the second, has come on strong after struggling early in the tournament.
“I welcomed him back after the game,” Babcock quipped.
It turned out to be a disastrous tournament for the Russians, who seemed to lose interest very early in the game after Canada got out to a big lead. The structure that is the hallmark of so many Russian teams was not there and Canada was able to neutralize the top two lines and smother the third and fourth with their depth.
The Russians are wildly talented, but the fact remains they only have 25 players in the NHL this season. Nine of their players were from the Kontinental League, which is about on par with the American League in terms of caliber of play. It probably wouldn’t have made the difference against Canada, but Alex Kovalev and Alexander Frolov would have been an upgrade on some of the talent on that team. Sergei Zubov, who is playing in the KHL this season, would have given the Russians the crafty puck-mover they needed. The only defenseman playing a regular shift this season who was not on the Russian roster was rookie Dmitry Kulikov of the Florida Panthers.
Instead of battling through adversity in the quarterfinal, the Russians became consumed by it.
“We played without passion,” said Ilya Bryzgalov, who mopped up for Evgeni Nabokov. “It was obvious.”
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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