Canada smothers Team USA 1-0, continues inexorable Olympic march

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SOCHI, Russia – This felt like a blowout. It wasn’t, of course. Canada’s men’s hockey team only beat the U.S. 1-0, and so Team USA was in the game right to the end. But the Canadians sucked the life out of the Americans, minute by minute. This was an asphyxiation.

Canada goes on to the gold-medal game against Sweden, and I know anything can happen in one hockey game, but this is the problem with playing Canada: Nothing ever happens. The Canadians don’t let anything happen.

Wherever the Americans wanted to go, the Canadians were already there. Canada had 37 shots on goal and the U.S. had 31, but most of those 31 shots on goal had no chance of being shots in the goal. The Americans waited four years for this night, four years since losing the gold-medal game in Vancouver on Sidney Crosby’s golden goal, and when the night finally arrived, what happened? Haven’t we been through this already? Nothing. Nothing ever happens.

On Friday morning, a few players from the U.S. women’s team held an autopsy/press conference to discuss their overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game, and the word “devastated” came up a lot. On Friday night, the Canadian men beat the U.S. on the same ice, and the American men may be devastated too, but this was different. For one, the U.S. men have to play a bronze-medal game against Finland on Saturday (and coach Dan Bylsma sort of promised that they would win it). And for another, unlike the women, the men should at least know that they lost to the better team.

Canada is the best team in the world, and this is only partly because Canada has a greater percentage of the best players than anybody else. Dominating with scoring talent is so un-Canadian; in this tournament, that was a Russian idea, and not a very good one.

The Canadian stars don’t play defense like stars, and that starts with the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. As Canadian coach Mike Babcock said, “It’s hard to get real good players to be as committed as our players have been defensively.”

Babcock also said, “We haven’t scored, and yet no one seems to care. It doesn’t matter.”

GAME BLOG: USA-Canada analysis, GIFs, tweets

It would have mattered if the U.S. had cashed in on one of its precious few chances, or if the Canadians had ever committed a bad turnover in their own zone. Because of the 1-0 score, and the talent on the American team, I expected some sort of U.S. flurry in the third period. That’s how these games usually go. Instead, there was a half-flurry. Canada dominated face-offs in that period, keeping the Americans from dominating play.

“They came at us with 20 guys tonight,” Bylsma said. “They came at us with speed for 60 minutes. That was as fast a game as I’ve ever been a part of. There was lots of speed out there and it was up and down the ice. We weren’t able to counter that.”

There are two sides to every game story, and here is the other, from U.S. defenseman Ryan Suter:  “We didn’t show up to play. It’s kind of frustrating. We sat back. We were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all.”

The key sentence there, maybe the only one that is relevant, is “You can’t play scared.” Of course the Americans showed up to play. This was the game they had been wanting since 2010, the one they knew they would have to win if they wanted gold this time.

This wasn’t about desire, and it wasn’t about effort. If the Americans played scared, it may have been because, deep down, they know Canada has a bigger arsenal of talent.

As for the Americans being passive, that might have been because Canada put them in a sleeper hold. Canada is so deep that every player on the ice, at all times, has tremendous skill. And with a wider ice sheet, skating and skill become even bigger factors. Canada’s Jonathan Toews pointed out that Canadian feet and sticks were constantly moving. The Canadians pushed the Americans to the outside constantly, which is why the high number of U.S. shots was so misleading.

American captain Zach Parise was asked if his team has a mental block against Canada. He said: “We lost 1-0. I don’t think there’s a mental block at all.”

Well then, maybe it is a physical block. Maybe it’s a little of both. Babcock reiterated his line that, “You have to line up the moon and stars to win. People don’t believe that in Canada, but that’s the facts.” And he has a point. If they played this tournament 10 times, Canada would not win all 10. It just seemed that way on Friday.