How Worried Should Team Canada Be About Mediocre Goaltending at Sochi Games?
Hockey Canada will assemble a star-studded roster of world-class and future Hall of Fame forwards and defensemen for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but none of those players, including Sidney Crosby, will have the biggest impact on the team's chances of winning back-to-back gold medals.
The color of Canada's medal, if it wins one at all, will be determined by the performance of the goaltenders, none of whom should instill much confidence in fans across the hockey-crazed nation.
Goaltending goes in cycles, and Canada is now in the midst of its worst era in years. There's no Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph or Martin Brodeur in his prime to calm the concerns over the possibility of mediocre goaltending at the Olympics.
The competition for the starting job is more wide open than it's ever been since NHL players started competing at the Olympics in 1998.
Most countries have to choose from two or maybe three standout candidates for the No. 1 role, but Canadian head coach Mike Babcock has five players to consider (six if you include Cam Ward), with none of them holding a distinct advantage over the others. There's nothing worse for an Olympic coach than having to choose between a bunch of good-but-not-great goaltenders.
Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price recently talked to TSN about the criticisms of Canada's goaltending.
I don't think you can take it personally. You can use it as motivation. We all believe that we have strong goaltenders in our country and I think all three of us believe in our abilities, and we believe we can all deliver a gold medal.
When Canada reaches the quarterfinals and beyond, it's going to oppose legitimate gold-medal contenders with better starting goaltenders, which could be a real problem because Team Canada was shut out three times when it last played on the Olympic stage overseas.
This squad will have plenty of offensive firepower in Sochi, but the adjustments that the forwards and defensemen must make on the larger ice surface won't be easy, and it may impact the offense's ability to match its scoring output from Vancouver (32 goals).
"It's definitely the angles with the ice being a little wider, it'll throw you off slightly," Price said when asked about adjusting to the Olympic-sized ice.
If the Canadians find themselves in a defensive battle with one of the nations in the chart below, many of which have rosters full of players with lots of experience on international-sized ice, the defending gold medalists could be in trouble.
|Finland||Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi, Pekka Rinne||Rask, Rinne and Niemi are all top-five NHL goalies capable of shutting down high-powered offenses and making big late-game saves.|
|Sweden||Henrik Lundqvist||Lundqvist was dominant in 2006 when he led Sweden to a gold medal. In Sochi, he will have arguably the best blue line Sweden has ever assembled for an Olympics in front of him.|
|Czech Republic||Tomas Vokoun||Vokoun was exceptional in the 2013 playoffs and has tons of international experience. If he gets hot, the Czechs will contend for gold.|
|United States||Jonathan Quick||Quick is the best big-game goalie in the NHL and was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner two years ago. He makes the current USA squad better than the silver medal-winning team from 2010.|
|Russia||Sergei Bobrovsky||The 2013 Vezina Trophy winner will give Russia the quality goaltending it lacked in a 7-3 loss to Canada in the 2010 quarterfinal.|
Unlike the NHL playoffs, where a team is able to overcome a few horrendous performances from its starting netminder and still win a seven-game series, there will be no room for error at the Olympics. Once Canada reaches the quarterfinal stage, one loss will prevent it from winning back-to-back golds for the first time in over five decades.
The problem for Canada is that no one in the NHL would choose any of their Olympic camp goalies in a winner-takes-all situation where one loss ends a gold-medal dream.
On a scale of 1-5, how worried should Canada be about its goaltending in Sochi?
Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, who went 5-0 with a 1.76 GAA and won the gold-medal game over the United States in 2010, is the leading candidate to start Game 1 of the group stage versus Norway. But Luongo wasn't even the starter on his own team for most of the 2013 season, and his history of failing in important playoff games won't instill too much confidence in Babcock.
Corey Crawford could have been last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner after a fantastic Stanley Cup run with the Chicago Blackhawks, but the 28-year-old has zero international experience.
Price appeared to be the clear-cut starter before a late-season dip in performance and disappointing 2013 playoff run raised questions about his candidacy for the No. 1 job. Phoenix Coyotes starter Mike Smith has shown flashes of brilliance in the NHL, but he hasn't shown enough consistency with only one season of more than 15 wins.
The other goaltender invited to the camp was 24-year-old Braden Holtby, who despite his impressive playoff performances for the Washington Capitals over the last two years, has only one season of experience as a starting goalie in the NHL.
Exceptional goaltending is able to carry a good-but-not great team to the gold-medal game, with the most recent examples being Dominik Hasek's brilliance for the Czech Republic in 1998 and Ryan Miller's MVP performance for the United States three years ago.
A poor performance at this position can also be the downfall of an otherwise near-perfect team, which is why Canada should be worried about its goaltenders as the Sochi Games approach.
Whenever the opposing team has the advantage in net, there's always a cause for concern. This is a situation that Canada will probably face multiple times in Sochi, which is why mediocre goaltending would lead to another Turin-like disaster at the next Olympics.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.
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