Before the World Cup even began, Canada was the favorite. When it comes to best-on-best hockey these days, Canada should always be the favorite, thanks to the unstoppable killing machine the national program has constructed. Heck, they’ve even won the past two World Championships, with most of their talent pool still busy in the Stanley Cup playoffs. But try getting a player to confirm that status, I dare you.
“You’re playing for Canada and the expectation is to win, from the outside and inside,” said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. “Favorites? I don’t know about that, but I know what the expectation is and that’s to win.”
Buddy, c’mon. Canada has dominated their opponents at the World Cup. As Bouwmeester himself noted, the team has top-10 scorers back-checking like never before – it’s a luxury that Canada can afford because its “bottom-six” players are still some of the best in the game; Joe Thornton is coming off one of his best seasons ever and Claude Giroux could barely crack the lineup. So, favorites, right?
“We have a confidence in our ability that if we go out and play it’s going to be difficult for teams to beat us,” said center Steven Stamkos. “But in a short tournament like this, anything can happen. That’s why you have to play the right way from the puck drop.”
So close. And yet, so far. While Team USA has been rightly lambasted for leaving some skill at home in favor of role players; Canada just uses all skill players and convinces them to be role players.
“What’s really unique is the willingness of every player to do whatever it takes to win,” Stamkos said. “I know a lot of people say it and they don’t necessarily mean it, but here it really doesn’t matter who gets on the scoresheet. There’s only one puck out there, but it truly is ‘check your ego at the door.’ ”
The template for success, according to Stamkos? Get pucks in deep, control the play. With every shift, play with tenacity and grit. Never give up and wear teams down. Makes sense to me. After all, you can get John Tavares to play like Justin Abdelkader, but you can’t get Abdelkader to play like Tavares. And the result has been some overpowering performances, even when the players didn’t believe they aced their assignments. For example, Canada mastered Team Europe 4-1, outshooting the previously undefeated squad 46-20.
“We’ve been generating a lot of shots – that’s something the coaching staff has been harping on us,” Stamkos said. “In that regard, we’re definitely going in the right direction. If we continue to get that many shots, the odds are the puck is going to go in the net.”
Next up is old foe Russia, in a win-or-die semi-final. Russia was the only side that could solve Team North America and did so with a combination of skill and smarts. The big question is the team’s defense corps. During the round robin, Russia’s forwards sometimes collapsed back to help out – and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was excellent as a last line of defense – but Canada brings way more structure than North America and more firepower than Sweden.
When Canada doesn’t have the puck (oh, it happens every once in a while), taking away the time and space of snipers such as Alex Ovechkin and Vladimir Tarasenko will be paramount and no doubt the top threats will see a steady dose of two-way mastery from Canada’s forwards before they even contemplate beating the superb defense corps. But don’t call Canada favorites against Russia, of course.
“One thing we’ve been doing well,” said center Jonathan Toews, “is never getting too comfortable.”
And that’s the key here. My pet theory about sports psychology is that it all comes down to lying to yourself and, often, the media (one player, after beating the worst team in the NHL, once told me “that’s a good team over there.” Then who is a bad team?). Don’t get too high, don’t get too low, stay focused on your goal. If you admit you’re the favorite and lose, where do you go from there? Luckily for Canada, they won’t admit it. And they don’t often lose, either.