SOCHI, Russia — From the twin beds in the athletes’ village to the cramped competition schedule, the Olympics are not a comfortable fit for N.H.L. players. Crossing the globe to play five games in nine days, as the semifinalists United States and Canada did, is a prescription for insomnia at best and injury at worst.
The teams were not at full strength on Friday when they met for the right to face Sweden for the gold medal. The Americans were missing one of their best defensemen, Paul Martin, and the Canadians were without one of the N.H.L.’s top scorers, the Islanders’ John Tavares. Both were hurt while playing here.
Tavares will miss the rest of the season with a torn medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee, which the N.H.L. owners are likely to use as ammunition in their fight to keep their players out of future Olympics. But Tavares’s absence did not slow the Canadians, who advanced to Sunday’s final with a 1-0 victory at Bolshoi Ice Dome.
The Canadians have allowed three goals in five games, their defensive mind-set proving they understand that a little discomfort and inconvenience can pay huge dividends.
“We can check, we can work our tails off, and we can make things real tough for the other team,” said forward Jonathan Toews, who did his part by winning 7 of 10 face-offs.
His teammate Jamie Benn won only one face-off, but it set up the only goal, in the second minute of the second period. Benn sent the puck back to defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who returned it to Benn, whose deflection skirted past goaltender Jonathan Quick.
United States Coach Dan Bylsma called Quick, who stopped 36 shots, “our best player on the ice.” The Canadians could have said the same about their goaltender, Carey Price, who made 31 saves.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the group in front of me,” Price said. “They feel comfortable being uncomfortable.”
The Americans never looked at ease. Led by the captain Zach Parise, who recorded eight shots, they had ample scoring chances, but the Canadians did not give up many second opportunities, clearing the puck after Price made the initial save. On the rare occasion when they failed to sweep the puck out of harm’s way, most notably on a point-blank shot by Paul Stastny late in the second, no American was there to pounce on the rebound.
“We did not get enough traffic in front of their goal and find second chances to score,” said forward David Backes of the United States.
The Americans like to use their speed in open ice, but the Canadians clogged the lanes, forcing the United States players back on their heels. “We tried to come up with speed,” said forward Patrick Kane, “but they did a good job of clogging it up and played good defense when we got into their zone.”
Canada’s captain, Sidney Crosby, is a scoring machine in the N.H.L., but after five games he does not have a goal. He was scoreless on four shots but could not have been happier.
“You’ve got to trust that sometimes it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but just when you think it’s not going in, the puck finds its way into the net,” Crosby said. “You have to trust those things.”
While the Canadians are playing suffocating defense, they trust their offense will find a way to score.
“We have taken a lot of pride in playing good defense in the Olympics,” defenseman Shea Weber said, adding, “Our focus is to play good defense, and the offense is going to come.”
There is nothing glamorous about forechecking or backchecking, but the Canadians have embraced both. Coach Mike Babcock said his team was inspired by the success of other Canadian athletes, who worked so hard and got only one shot every four years at their sport’s ultimate prize.
Day after day, the Canadians have returned to their rooms in the athletes’ village after grinding out another victory to find their compatriots merrily mugging with their medals. They have watched their women’s curlers win gold, the women’s hockey team, too, and they have seen in those journeys the true meaning of struggle and sacrifice.
The night before the semifinal, the men’s team attended the women’s gold medal game and cheered as Canada came from behind to beat the United States.
“It was a great moment for them,” Crosby said.
And great motivation for the men’s team.
“We’ve got a couple of gold medals for the curling teams and the women’s hockey team in the last couple of days,” Toews said, “and now we’ve got the chance to follow their efforts.”
Source: The New York Times