Canada Plans to Keep Sweden on the Defensive
SOCHI, RUSSIA -- Canada arrived at the 2014 Sochi Olympics loaded with offensive superstars.
Canada had 11 of the top 25 scorers in the NHL among its 14 forwards. The rest of the teams in the tournament had a total of nine.
It stood to reason that Canada would be able to steamroll the opposition with its offense.
The Canadians have done that, except they've turned the theory around; they've used offense as their primary source of defense.
Entering the gold-medal game against Sweden on Sunday (7 a.m. ET; NBC, CBC), Canada has scored 14 goals in five games and has allowed three, largely because the puck has spent an inordinate amount of time in the offensive zone without necessarily finding its way into the back of the opposing net.
"I don't think we've had to play a lot [in the] defensive zone, for the most part," Canada captain Sidney Crosby said after practice Saturday. "We've done a good job of getting on the forecheck and possessing the puck. It's a lot better playing that way than having to play in your [defensive] zone."
In a 1-0 semifinal victory Friday, Canada outshot the United States 37-31. The scoring chances were roughly 20-15 for Canada, depending on whom you ask. It was a one-goal game where each goalie saw just about the same amount of action, made the same number of big saves, and the result came down to Canada burying one of its chances.
Except it wasn't that at all. If ever a 1-0 game could feel like a blowout, this was it. Canada played keep away with one of the best teams in the world, and that had as much to do with the shutout as Carey Price's 31 saves.
"We didn't have any pressure or anything," U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter said, demoralized after the loss. "It's tough to win when you don't play in the offensive zone."
The Americans, widely considered to be the grittier of the two teams, were unable to counter the Canadians' speed through the neutral zone and its brawn in the U.S. zone, which made for a lot of calm moments for Price standing in his net, oftentimes 175 feet away from the puck.
"We're too big and strong and fast to give the puck up too easily," Canada defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "I thought [Friday] night we did a really good job of that."
Sweden represents a different animal than the U.S. in that a lot of its offense is generated from a defenseman. Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators leads the team in goals (four) and points (eight), and he will be the focal point of Canada's defensive effort Sunday.
That strategy will be executed by forcing Karlsson to play defense.
"I guess the best thing we can do is play in their end and hold on to the puck and hopefully make him play defense as much as we can, because he is dangerous, he's shown that throughout the tournament, and he's mobile," Crosby said. "So we have to find a way to make sure we know where he is and also try to play in their end as much as we can."
Led by coach Mike Babcock, Canada has had a confident air throughout the tournament even though many fans watching back home and most of the media were harping on its difficulties scoring goals.
The reason for that was, aside from failing to convert on scoring chances, everything else in Canada's game was going according to the plan that was presented to the players at orientation camp in Calgary last August.
The strong puck possession, the dogged back pressure on the rare occasions Canada doesn't have the puck, the attention to every defensive detail imaginable -- all of it was spelled out very plainly by Babcock and his staff months ago. It's working perfectly now.
"We haven't changed our game plan since Day One," Pietrangelo said. "Since the summertime when we had our orientation camp, this was the game plan that they put together. Obviously there's been some minor changes depending on the opponent, but we've kept the same game plan from Game 1.
"You don't change it if it's working, and it's been working so far."
If the Canadians manage to produce stifling defense with their offense again Sunday, the Olympic gold medal should be going home with them.
They need the plan hatched in Calgary last summer to work for one more game.