The game was tied 2-2 after a goal late in the third period was scored by Team USA winger Zach Parise. Despite fighting on home ice, the Canadian ice hockey team had struggled to get to this point. They finished sixth in round-robin play after being smashed by Team USA by a score of 5-2, squeezed out a shootout victory over the not-so-dreaded Team Switzerland, and had to play an additional game to make it to the quarterfinals.
Taking all the adversity in stride, Team Canada found themselves facing their rivals in the gold medal game after skating over Germany, Russia, and Slovakia.
With 12:20 left in the overtime period, Sidney Crosby put an end to the critics. Crosby tucked a shot behind U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller, who had been on fire the whole tournament and was later named the tournament’s MVP. With “Sid the Kid” and the rest of the Canadian squad receiving gold medals, Team USA looked on in envy.
That was the cover story of ice hockey in Vancouver 2010. For a nation so engrossed in hockey, Team Canada winning gold was a storybook ending. Winning it on home ice was the cherry on top. And winning it with a marvelous goal by a player who was lauded at the start of his career as “the Next One”—an homage to “the Great One”—was the stuff legends are made of.
Behind all that coverage, it may be easy to forget the other story that stretches from Vancouver 2010 to Sochi 2014: the development of Team Russia.
In Vancouver, the Russians left empty-handed. This marked 18 years since Russia had won a gold medal in ice hockey. They won in 1992 as the Unified Team, a group of athletes from former Soviet republics in the middle of transitioning into democracies. But since then, Mother Russia has had lacklustre appearances. They captured silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002, the same year Team Canada broke a 50-year gold medal drought, and in 2010 they finished sixth.
On home turf for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Team Russia is hoping to make up for the last 22 years, armed with outstanding offensive ability and led by captain Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings.
Three ice hockey teams are looking to make headlines in Sochi.
Four years since the last Winter Olympics, Crosby has gone from promising young talent to team captain, one of the greatest players in the world, and a good leader for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Crosby is on track to nab 111 points this NHL season, 20 more than fellow Canadian Olympian John Tavares.
Crosby will be leading the office, flanked and complemented by NHL stars Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, John Tavares, and Johnathan Toews, with an astounding lineup of centres and wingers. This is a recipe for success. The team’s management, headed by GM Steve Yzerman, has assembled a group of players who know how to score goals and pairs of players on at least three lines who play together on their respective NHL teams, so they’ll have good chemistry from the get-go. Sniper Steven Stamkos is out with an injury, but his replacement, Tampa Bay Lightning line mate Martin St. Louis, has been red-hot lately, singlehandedly carrying the Lightning to a top spot in the Eastern Conference.
On defence, the blue-liners for Team Canada will be the players who make it into talks for the Norris Trophy. Shea Weber will be an assistant captain and is a commanding presence with his booming slapshot. By his side will be Drew Doughty, Duncan Kieth, and 2013 Norris winner P.K. Subban, along with other formidable names.
The goaltending position has been the toughest choice for Team Canada. The goalie lineup consists of 2010 gold medal winner Roberto Luongo, Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price, and the stone-cold goalie of the Phoenix Coyotes, Mike Smith. The problem is the inconsistent play of these goalies. Luongo has been shaky at best since losing the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins in 2012. Last season, he mostly sat on the bench as backup to Cory Schneider. Carey Price, although currently on fire, has had a history of being streaky. And Mike Smith, a goaltender not known for flashy moves, lacks big-game experience. It’s not certain that he’ll hold up under Olympic pressure.
The host country will be eyeing success in every event. But in a country as hockey-mad as Russia, other teams should watch out here especially. Team Russia’s roster features some of the best snipers and goal-scorers in the world. Captain Pavel Datsyuk is a wizard with the puck, with stick-handling abilities that have been dubbed “Datsyukian” by colour commentators. He’s a master at the game and a one-man tour de force on the ice. With superstars like Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin, the Russians have explosive scoring and elite snipers, boasting one of the best offensive lineups conceivable.
On defence, however, the Russians don’t have as strong a core. They don’t really have any star players on their blue line who would usually be found on a championship team. The only player whose name jumps out is Andrei Markov, and even though he’s good, he plays second fiddle on the Montreal Canadiens to P.K. Subban. That being said, the Russian offence might be good enough to compensate for the lack of skill at the defensive end.
The goaltender position is less of a problem for the Russians than for Team Canada. Sergei Bobrovsky, winner of the 2013 Vezina trophy for best goaltender in the NHL last season, will more than likely get the nod to start. He’s a talented netminder who will have backup from the likes of Semyon Varlamov of the Colorado Avalanche. Both players have prowess in net, but their inexperience in big games may be a problem. Bobrovsky’s Columbus Blue Jackets have been near the bottom of the NHL for the past few years and, until this year, so have Varlamov’s Colorado Avalanche.
Finally, there’s the team that came short of beating the Canadians in 2010 and wants to take revenge in Sochi. The player who tied the gold medal game for the Americans in 2010, Zach Parise, is the captain. He has matured into a capable star and leader worthy of any NHL team. He also has skilled players at his side, including two-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Kane, Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, and Canucks forward Ryan Kesler. Team USA also has the Leafs’ first-line duo, Phil Kessel and James van Reimsdyk, who have proven one of the best winger pairs in the NHL. Although not as deep or skilled as Canada or Russia, Team USA can sure pack a punch and score against the best of them.
Team USA won’t be relying on defence to win games. Although USA has stars like Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk, the defence lacks the depth and star talent that Canada and Sweden have.
But their goaltending is second to none, led by Kings star Jonathan Quick, who has proven himself the NHL’s best goalie over the past few seasons and will likely have Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Detroit’s Jimmy Howard for backup. Simply put, this goaltending depth gives USA an advantage over every team in the tournament and makes them the hardest to score against.
Team USA will look to take the gold medal from their traditional rivals. Although they most likely won’t succeed considering the talent that Russia and Canada bring, the Americans have heart. Its players today are products of the days when a ragtag group of American college students trounced the Goliath that was the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, USA. That “Miracle on Ice” led to the development of a much better national hockey system that fostered the growth of numerous American players. With a powerful offence and goaltending that’s truly the best, Team USA might just be able to win another underdog gold medal.
Although a Team Russia versus Team Canada gold medal match-up would be one for the history books, both will have to work hard to get by Team USA. The games are not low on spectacular storylines, and with the competition as fierce as it has ever been in men’s ice hockey, it’ll be a treat for fans to watch.