Think back to Team Canada’s performance at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia and you’ll likely remember just one thing – the Canadians capturing the gold medal once again, continuing their reign from the 2010 tournament.
But the Canadian men’s hockey team wasn’t necessarily an unstoppable force in Sochi. They had the expectedly absurd depth – housing some of the NHL’s most prominent stars at every position – but the alignment of those pieces left more to be desired.
Perhaps it was a learning experience for head coach Mike Babcock, because the veteran bench-boss has had an entirely different experience this time around, and his new configurations are showing the full weight of Canada’s talent.
The club’s defensive pairings may be a bit suspect – to be honest, everything about Canada’s World Cup blue-line group has been – but the success of the red and white’s forwards has been indisputable.
Take a look at how Canada’s forwards fared in Sochi. No Canadian forward ranked among the top 11 scorers in the tournament. One member of the squad slotted in at number 12, and that was Jeff Carter – not exactly your first thought when naming prolific scorers.
While defenders Drew Doughty and Shea Weber managed to contribute offensively, ranking sixth and ninth among tournament scorers, respectively, Canada’s big guns – Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, Jamie Benn – remained relatively quiet. None of those previously mentioned names ranked among the tournament’s top 30 scorers.
The 2016 group has been a different breed, as Canada’s offensive depth has displayed the dominance expected of them.
Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Matt Duchene are currently tied for the tournament scoring lead with four points apiece through three games – already topping each of their Sochi totals.
Those totals are only a small part of the story, however. Tiny sample size aside, it’s the cohesiveness of the team’s four lines that has been the most significant aspect of their success.
Crosby and linemates Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron came into the tournament with plenty of hype, as the somewhat surprising combination had the potential to line up perfectly for Babcock.
The club’s 4-1 shellacking of Team Europe showed precisely why, as the trio combined for an astounding 17 shots during the victory. Marchand led the way with seven, while Bergeron added six, and Crosby contributed four shots and the game’s first goal.
Then came the second line of John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, and Claude Giroux, who checked in for healthy scratch Ryan Getzlaf. The three looked exceptional together, and the combined playmaking prowess of Tavares and Giroux aided in pushing Stamkos closer to finally breaking out at the tournament – the former Rocket Richard Trophy-winner finished the game with five shots to his name.
Canada has seen a different key scorer step up each game, and the clash with Team Europe was Toews’ time to populate the scoresheet. The Chicago Blackhawks captain tallied two goals and one assist, meshing particularly well with linemate Logan Couture, who assisted on Toews’ second goal before adding one of his own in the third period (assisted by Toews).
And then there was Canada’s “fourth line” of Matt Duchene, Joe Thornton, and Ryan O’Reilly. Duchene has established himself as one of the tournament’s biggest threats already, with Thornton serving as the perfect running mate. The pair’s ability to expertly navigate their way through traffic and keep defenders falling over themselves has made them a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses.
There hasn’t been a weak spot throughout Canada’s forward corps thus far, even with the group missing two immensely important names in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.
While Canada has looked unbeatable on paper in past tournaments, the actual on-ice result has been a slightly different story. There were certainly times the country’s team in Sochi looked human, with their offense requiring a shot in the arm from Doughty seemingly every game.
This time around, things have clicked, and no other squad has shown anything to suggest they’ll be able to shut the Canadian offense down. Canada’s next test will be Russia in Saturday’s semifinal, and there may be no better team to line up alongside the Canadians for close comparison.
The Russian squad is bursting at the seams with elite offensive talent, housing stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Pavel Datsyuk, and Evgeny Kuznetsov. And yet, the group has looked far from explosive.
The big names are getting on the board here and there, but Russia has looked beatable throughout the tournament, and their forwards unit looks like it’s lacking the sense of cohesion that has allowed Canada to thrive.
Watching the two face off against one another again should make that point very clear, though it will likely be the underwhelming Russian blue-line that tilts the ice in Canada’s favor.