Canada’s entry at the 2014 Sochi Games has a problem. Despite what should be an insurmountable amount of talent, despite dominating puck possession and despite owning a formidable territorial advantage in every game, Canada has struggled to generate offence.
Norway should have been no problem for Canada on paper, but the Canadians got bogged down and finished with a 3-1 win when the actual spread should have been something like 6-1 or 7-1, based on the composition of the roster. They did a better job against Austria (more on that in a moment) but found themselves fighting tooth and nail for every goal against Finland, needing overtime to secure the 2-1 win. If the game had gone on just a few minutes longer, Canada would have had to rely on the always dicey shootout for victory.
What’s going wrong, exactly? And how can the Canadians fix it?
The problem is the collapsing defence being played by Canada’s opponents. Teams like Norway and Austria and even Finland (at least when the Finns play Canada) have learned that they cannot control the game through skill, so they bog it down, try and reduce the chances for either team to keep the score as close as possible to zero and hope either to make the shootout or get the lucky break on one of the rare chances at either end. So when Canada forechecks, the result looks like this:
It doesn’t matter that the Canadian forwards are, as a group, bigger and better, because all the guys in scoring areas are outmanned. Finland has a 2-1 advantage on the man in front of the net, both Canadian forecheckers under pressure and a man in position to cover a pass back along the wall to the defence. It’s tough to overcome a five-on-three disadvantage below the faceoff dots.
Once Canada gains the zone, the struggle is to get a shooter with possession into a dangerous area. Here’s how Finland defended against the Canadians once Canada owned the perimeter:
The puck-carrier (red label No. 4) has no options down low. The forward in front of the net is being checked tightly by one defender (blue label No. 2), and there’s another Finn (blue label No. 4) in the passing lane. Reversing the puck along the boards to the Canadian behind the net (out of picture) means risking a giveaway to the Finnish defenceman in front of the net (out of picture), who can close off the lane in a hurry. He also can’t charge the centre of the net because his checker (blue label No. 4 again) blocks that lane.
That leaves the defencemen; there’s a high-risk pass to the far point man (red label No. 2) that runs the chance of springing Finland on a two-on-one rush (blue No. 3 picking off the pass with speed and with blue No. 5 outnumbering red No. 3). So that leaves one option: The low-risk pass to the point (No. 3 in red).
What happens when Canada gets the puck at the points? Here’s how the Finns tended to play that:
We’ve seen what happens when the defenceman moves the puck low: The Finns collapse. If the puck-carrier (No. 1) tries for the shot, he has to somehow get it through not only traffic created by two to three Canadian bodies but also through four Finns (one in front of the net is not visible in this picture) who want to block the shot. If the shot is blocked at any point in the slot, the Finns have the advantage of numbers. If he instead passes to the other point (No. 2), the Finns get three bodies in the shooting lane with extreme ease.
It is a suffocating system, one the Finns executed with incredible ability. A Canadian attack loaded to the gills with superstars managed not one goal in five-on-five play; its first goal came on the power play and its second in the more wide-open four-on-four overtime period. So how can Canada possibly get around it?
Looking at Canada’s five-on-five goals, they have come almost exclusively in situations where a) the attack was off the rush, b) the defending team (specifically the Austrians) didn’t stick to its defensive formation or c) the defence managed a seeing-eye shot. There are two key exceptions.
The first is this play:
Canada’s puck-carrier (red No. 1) puts the puck on net, and the net-front presence (red No. 2) manages to keep the puck alive and in contest against two defenders (blues No. 1 and No. 2) long enough for the Canadian forwards to collapse in and overwhelm the defenders. This requires the forward in front of the net to beat both defencemen and is a lot more difficult to execute against a team like Finland or Switzerland than it is against Austria.
The second is this play against Norway:
Canada manages to get possession of the puck, and the man who does (red No. 3) makes a quick pass back to his partner (red No. 1) on the sideboards. The Norwegians close in quickly, denying him time and space, but he passes the puck immediately to a pinching Canadian defender (red No. 2). As soon as the Canadian defenceman gets the puck, a good scoring chance is assured: He can hammer the puck to the front of the net where one Canadian and one Norwegian are, and the Canadian (who is likely both bigger and more skilled) is going to win the battle for a rebound often enough even if the shot doesn’t go in. In this case, the defenceman makes a quick move on the lone Norwegian (blue No. 1), then walks in and scores.
Canada has been trying to create these plays, but the execution has been lacking because the forwards seem to hang on to the puck too long; they have time and space they don’t get in the NHL and so don’t feel pressured to make quick passes.
The problem is that even with time and space, the defensive system being used by these teams is so tight that a static attack can’t penetrate it; to score goals, Canada has to force the defensive box to open up, which means drawing the attackers to the boards and getting passes away before they can get back to position. Cross-ice passes through a tight defensive box are extremely risky, but cross-ice passes (like that last one) through an open defensive box create opportunities to score goals.
It's going to be tough. Most of the Canadian forwards don't play together often, and those that do rely on a different system to counter NHL defences. Ice conditions in the late games haven't been good, either, and that makes passes in quick succession difficult. As strange as it sounds, Canada's forward group may have more luck scoring against teams with more skill, teams like the United States and Sweden, who will feel less pressured to adhere to a rigid defensive formation.
For now, though, it's a tough time to play forward but a great time to be a defenceman on Team Canada. The collapsing defence necessitates opening up the points, and players like Drew Doughty and Shea Weber have taken full advantage of that. Between them, those two defencemen account for more than half of Canada's scoring, and as long as the Canadians play against this style of defence, their scoring ability is going to be vital.