Here’s a different kind of Hat Trick for this week. In the wake of Canada’s 1-0 shutout of the United States in the semi-finals in Sochi, here’s the three things I thought of first in the immediate aftermath of the Olympic clash.
BIG D: If there was one huge (pun intended) advantage Canada had over the United States, it was on the blue line.
Drew Doughty may have taken the trophy from Sidney Crosby this week as Canada’s “Best Player,” though the Sidney apologists are certainly going to make him work for that title. But Doughty’s ability to move the puck, to transition through the neutral zone, to put pucks on net and to make all the players on the ice around him better was eye-opening. Certainly, he’s been recognized for years as among the NHL’s elite defensemen, but he was able to do all of this while the reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban watched from the sidelines.
Throw in Shea Weber’s toughness, Alex Pietrangelo’s tremendous puck-moving ability and even Duncan Keith and Jay Bouwmeester’s steady presence, and the defensive corps as a whole on the Canadian roster made the United States contingent pale in comparison.
More than their ability in and around their own net — an area the smaller U.S. forwards simply couldn’t get to — was their dominance in the neutral zone. When they weren’t springing forwards for odd-man rushes Friday, they were jumping into the rush themselves to create multiple options on a very successful breakout.
Perhaps just as telling was the notion that Team USA never made any in-game adjustments. It was just as easy for Canada to move through neutral ice in the third period as it was in the first, testament to just how successful the Canadian game was.
It’s no accident that Crosby is goal-less this tournament while the Canadian defensemen have contributed roughly half the goals scored by the team in Sochi. It’s not a reflection on a lack of chemistry among Canada’s forwards or even a lack of scoring punch — it’s a direct result of just how good Canada’ defensemen are, especially on the bigger ice surface.
Even with more space to cover along the half-wall and in the wide corners, Canada’s blue-liners play a bruising physical game mixed with speed and puck possession. As Team USA found out, it’s a lethal combination.
RETURN TO FORM: See, now I remember why it’s so hard to fall in love with Phil Kessel. It’s because for all his gifts — his speed, his shot, in goal-scoring abilities — he is downright absent whenever his team needs him most.
Think about it.
In the two most physical games the United States played in Sochi — against Russia in the opening round and against Canada in the semifinals — Kessel was virtually invisible. He is soft, unwilling to battle stronger players into the danger areas on the ice. He won’t commit defensively, blocks shots only by accident, and seems destined to be part of teams which under perform in playoff games.
In short, it’s all the reasons the Boston Bruins parted with him years ago. He’s not a well-rounded hockey player — and it’s all the more frustrating when you watch how good he can be against the Little Sisters Of The Poor.
Kessel gives you a taste of the greatness that always seems to be just out of reach for him and never lets you have your proverbial cake and eat it, too.
I feel like I’m a victim of spousal abuse. Two weeks ago I cursed Kessel for making me see him in a different light, and I find myself apologizing for no reason at all. Today, I’m even more angry with myself for letting him do that to me.
Consider me empowered.
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