Team Europe’s Cinderella run to the World Cup of Hockey final isn’t expected to continue on past Team Canada, but it seems a few members of the Canadian coaching staff may be looking to keep things interesting.
That is the only reasonable explanation for the way Canada utilized their defensemen in game one of the tournament’s final series, as some questionable choices were certainly made.
Leading up to the opener against Europe, Canada’s blue line had been mulling along nicely with a steady diet of Drew Doughty. The Los Angeles Kings defender led the team in ice time in all three round robin games, remaining above veteran Shea Weber in this regard, before finishing level with the newly minted Montreal Canadiens rearguard in Canada’s semifinal win over Russia (both blueliners finished with just over 22 minutes to their names).
The results had been fairly strong – Canada was rarely tested over the tournament up to that point, outscoring opponents by a margin of 19-6 over the previous round robin and elimination games.
Over that span, Canada had dug in on pairings of Drew Doughty with Jay Bouwmeester, Shea Weber with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brent Burns with Alex Pietrangelo. The lone exception was the final round robin game – a tune-up between Canada and Europe in which neither team pushed too hard, as both had already secured a trip to the next round. Weber sat out in favour of Jake Muzzin that night, temporarily altering the club’s duos to pair each rearguard with their NHL teammate.
In each of the meaningful games featuring the Vlasic-Weber pairing, they arguably ranked as Canada’s weakest duo – often backing themselves into undesirable corners and coming up short in their effort to effectively push play up ice. The situation wasn’t helped by Doughty’s situation, as the recent Norris Trophy-winner was being dragged down by Bouwmeester, who’s obviously been a far stretch from the player he was called on to replace – Duncan Keith.
Despite the largely unimpressive body of work from Vlasic and Weber, head coach Mike Babcock opted to put them on the ice for the opening faceoff in game one of the final series, and continued to hand them key ice-time throughout the contest.
The result: Europe forced Canada back into their own zone on the game’s opening play, giving Tomas Tatar a dangerous chance from the slot, and immediately granting the underdog European squad a powerplay opportunity just 20 seconds into the contest.
Weber and Vlasic continued to get bombarded all game long, allowing 16 shots-against while on the ice, and helping Canada earn just nine shots themselves. They were the worst duo on the roster in that regard. And yet, they continued to get plenty of opportunities, finishing the game as the team’s ice-time leaders with over 23 minutes apiece (in fact just over 24 minutes in the case of Vlasic).
Doughty finished with nearly three full fewer minutes than Weber, despite similarly playing in all situations. An odd choice considering Doughty and Bouwmeester led the club when it came to tilting the ice towards Europe’s net, as the pair forced 15 even-strength shots on Jaroslav Halak when on the ice, while allowing just three in their own end.
Of course, in the end this discrepancy made little difference, as Canada’s star-studded offensive unit was simply too talented to subdue, even with a slightly malfunctioning blue-line.
The red and white were outshot by the Europe squad over the first 20 minutes of action, with the two teams carrying out some fairly even play for the most part. And that period ended with a 2-0 score for Canada, as Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand exposed the European blueline brilliantly for the game’s opening tally, with Ryan Getzlaf and Steven Stamkos doing so again 10 minutes later.
There was little chance of anyone beating Canada this time around, even with the team’s significant injuries. But that dominance has been largely due to the team’s exceptionally deep forward corps and the masterful play of netminder Carey Price.
Canada’s defense hasn’t been bad by any stretch, but it’s tough to truthfully claim they’ve been as good as they could have been. Imagine this team with the Doughty that showed up in Sochi – indomitable in both ends of the rink, leaving as the eventual leading Canadian scorer. He hasn’t been under-performing, but rather, he’s been stuck playing a more cautious game beside his wildcard defensive partner, Bouwmeester.
Imagine just how much better this blue line could have been with Keith able to suit up. Or with Kris Letang, P.K. Subban, and Mark Giordano included in the process.
This may well be one of the best Canadian teams ever assembled – especially considering the way they’ve managed to click, offensively – but they easily could have been an even better group had Canada’s brass gotten it right on the back end as well.
Such is the problem many highlight when discussing today’s international tournaments. Canada’s crop of talent is simply impossible for other nations to presently match. A similar mishandling of key defensive pieces would likely immediately sink other World Cup teams. For Canada, it may well wind up being little more than an interesting sidenote on their seemingly effortless march to the championship.
Game two of the final series will determine whether or not that will indeed be the case. Either the slight cracks in the blue line will continue to show, Europe will continue to press, and they’ll manage to make a game out of it, or Canada will continue to roll regardless, dispensing with the theatrics and finishing the tournament in their expected position.
With Sidney Crosby flirting with one of the best stretches of his career – leading the World Cup with nine points through five games, and looking to lift his second championship trophy in four months – it seems absurd at this point to expect anything less than the latter.