SOCHI, Russia — The opening days of the Sochi Olympics men’s hockey tournament belonged to the Russians, rock stars on their home soil, the Sons of the Red Machine, from whom so much was expected and so little delivered. After Russia flamed out, it belonged, if briefly, to the ascendant and confident U.S. team, which breezed through the preliminary round at a dizzying clip before crashing and burning. Plucky Slovenia and steady Finland had their moments as well.
But in the end, Olympic hockey belonged to the same outfit it belonged to four years ago, the same country the sport has belonged to, at least in an ancestral sense, since its invention. It belonged to the red-sweatered men of Team Canada, who traveled thousands of miles to defend the title they won on their own home soil in 2010 — and succeeded spectacularly.
In Sunday’s thorough 3-0 victory over an undermanned Sweden squad in the gold medal game, the Canadians put the finishing touches on an exemplary, two-week hockey clinic that, other than the final result, bore almost no resemblance to the one they put on in Vancouver four years earlier.
In Vancouver, the Canadians steamrolled opponents on sheer offensive firepower, outscoring opponents by an aggregate score of 35-16. In Sochi, however, defense ruled the day: Canada scored just 17 goals in its six games but allowed only three, on a pair of deflections and a breakaway.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be part of a team like that, whether your role was big or small,” said Jonathan Toews, who scored Canada’s first goal. “We were just an amazing team to watch, the way we worked together and the way we were all over them.”
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Canada won here without ever trailing. They won despite scoring just two power-play goals in six games. They won with superstar scorers buying into a system that rewarded grinding shifts and backchecking over pure offense.
“It was pretty impressive to see all the guys, with all the talent they have, to backcheck the way they did, to stick with what was asked from the coaches,” left wing Matt Duchene said.
As the last second ticked off the clock Sunday, the Canadians climbed over their boards and formed a scrum around goalie Carey Price, who pitched back-to-back shutouts over the United States and Sweden in the semifinals and finals — though the suffocating nature of Canada’s defense meant he was rarely seriously threatened.
“I thought we were dominant,” Canada Coach Mike Babcock said. “I thought we were great. We didn’t give up anything, [and] the other team’s goalie had to be great every time. I loved the way we played. I’d take it every time.”
The Bolshoy Ice Dome, which was so deafening and lively during Team Russia’s games, was eerily quiet for much of the game, apparently full of mostly Russian fans who bought tickets in anticipation of Russia’s hoped-for appearance in the gold medal game. The loudest cheer of the day may have come when the public-address announcer congratulated the Russian bobsled team for a gold medal earlier in the day.
A pair of long-time-coming goals by Toews and Sidney Crosby, Canadian stars who had been held without a goal in the tournament to that point, gave Canada a 2-0 lead after two periods. Toews’s tally came in the first period on a deflection of a perfect pass through the crease by Jeff Carter, while Crosby’s, in the second, was vintage Crosby — take the puck away from a Swede at the far blue line, outrace three pursuers and backhand it past Henrik Lundqvist for the score.
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By the time Chris Kunitz scored for Canada in the third period to make it 3-0, the game was safely over. The Canadians had given up three goals in the entire tournament; they weren’t going to give up three in one period to a team decimated by injury and, Sunday afternoon, a shocking failed drug test.
Sweden’s forward lines, already reconfigured by the losses of centers Henrik Sedin and Henrik Zetterberg to injures, had to absorb another blow when Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals, who had been centering the Swedes’ No. 2 line, was scratched just before game time after testing positive for elevated levels of pseudoephedrine. Backstrom and Swedish officials were stunned at the positive test, which they said came from an allergy medication he has taken for seven years.
Of the five Winter Olympics that have included NHL players, Canada has won the gold medal in three of them. But even by Canadian standards, this team was special. After the gold medal game, Steve Yzerman, Team Canada’s general manager, didn’t hesitate to call it the best Canadian Olympic team ever or to compare it to the dominant Soviet teams of the 1970s and ’80s.
“Since I’ve been around, it’s the most impressive display of defensive hockey ” he said. “. . . That group of players was committed to a 200-foot game. The players bought into that. I commend them. It was an incredibly talented group of [offensive] players who said, ‘You know what, I’ll do whatever it takes to win.’”