Canada faces the most high-flying team of the Olympics in a serious goal drought going into the semifinal. But even though there has been a crisis in offense, there is no crisis of confidence entering the game against the Americans.
SOCHI – There would be no fiery, Phil Esposito-like speech from Jeff Carter on this day. The way Team Canada sees it, there is no need for a rallying point because there’s no need for a rally. And in a way, they’re right. Never before has there been this much consternation and hand wringing over a team that is 4-0-0. And rarely does a team come into a game with that kind of record labeled as the underdog.
“Yeah, I hear you,” Carter said. “That’s not bad, eh?”
Much of it has to do with ‘not bad’ being just good enough to win. But Canada knows that ‘not bad’ will translate to playing for bronze if they don’t step up their scoring against USA in the semifinal. And all they have to do to accomplish that is get some pucks by Jonathan Quick, all the while stopping the best offensive team in the tournament at the other end of the ice.
And they'll have to do it with something of a different look. John Tavares, who had played well in a limited role, injured his knee and is out for the tournament. That could necessitate a move back to center for Patrice Bergeron, which would move him off the right side on the top line, although he practiced with Crosby and Chris Kunitz on Thursday, while Matt Duchene moved to the center spot on the fourth line.
The game between Canada and USA could turn out to be the crown jewel of a tournament that has so far, from a hockey quality standpoint, been a little lacking. To be sure, the level of play has been nowhere near what it was four years ago in Vancouver. So now the legacy might be built on two semifinals that feature some bitter neighbors. As intense as the rivalry is between Canada and USA, it’s every bit as intense between Finland and Sweden.
Canadian defenseman Drew Doughty won a Stanley Cup with Quick two years ago and knows exactly what is at stake against him and fellow teammate Dustin Brown. “You really want those bragging rights for the rest of the season,” Doughty said. “The rest of your life, really.”
In order to do that, Canada is going to have to find a way to score goals from somewhere other than the blueline. Doughty and Shea Weber have found the back of the net from 58 feet away, but have done almost nothing from the prime scoring areas. For three games, Canada seemed to have no success getting anywhere near the net, but in the quarterfinal against Latvia, they were in so tight so many times on goalie Kristers Gudlevskis that they were almost too close to the net to score.
Unlike their opponent, they’re generating very little off the rush, they’re not able to find the middle of the ice and every time they try to find a lane, there are five bodies from the other team piled in front of them. The Americans, by contrast, have had no trouble scoring goals, have been dangerous in transition and off the rush and enter the game with all kinds of confidence on the offensive side of the puck.
“I think for the last two games, the way we’ve had to compete around the net and really grind for those chances, that will hopefully help us tomorrow,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who has just three assists in four games. “We’ve had a lot of zone time. Whether we scored two goals or 10 in the last game doesn’t matter.”
Really? Canada would not have preferred to go into its semifinal against its biggest rival with more of a sense of confidence? Canada loved everything about the way it played against Latvia in the quarterfinal but lamented their lack of finish around the net. Playing a more familiar opponent in terms of style might help that cause.
"I think it will be a lot of fun," Carter said. "They're not just clogging up the middle of the ice and it will be a little more of what we're used to."
And one thing that has seemed to go unmentioned amid Canada’s scoring woes is that Canada has been woefully behind the Americans in offense, but with six goals against so far, the Americans have given up twice as many goals as Canada in the tournament. The Canadians have surrendered just three, two that were tipped and one as the result of a clean-cut breakaway. And Doughty and Carter are used to being on teams that don’t score. When the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, they did so after finishing 28th in NHL scoring in the regular season.
“I know defense wins championships and goaltending wins championships,” Doughty said, “and we’re getting that from everyone on our team.”