The Canadian men's hockey team started strong in the 2014 Winter Olympics by winning all three group games, but there were hiccups along the way, and significant obstacles lie ahead with the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
After surviving in overtime against Finland, a stingy Swiss team comes next. Then Canada would need two more wins, and there is too much quality in the tournament for Canada to defend gold with the first line in disarray, led by its hero from four years ago, Sidney Crosby.
Crosby has yet to find his rhythm in Sochi, managing only two assists and no goals through the three group-stage games. Despite his undeniable excellence, this continues a pattern of subpar play at the Olympics masked by his heroics at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Crosby netted the game-winning goal in overtime of the gold-medal game to lift Canada over the United States. It also delivered the host nation its final gold of the games.
As Canadian center Jonathan Toews phrased it for ESPN's Scott Burnside, "That was a game for the ages." United States coach Ron Wilson agreed: "A great player made a great play and found a way to finish us off."
What preceded that was not so great. As observed by Bruce Arthur of the National Post (via Canada.com), the Vancouver Olympics saw Crosby play with "six different combinations featuring six different players, ending with Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal." In Sochi, Canada will run out of time if it can't strike upon the key combination very soon.
Arthur asked Canadian teammate and occasional linemate Rick Nash: "Why is playing with Canada's greatest player so hard?" Nash's answer was basically that it's because "Sid the Kid" is so darn good:
I think he's a tough guy to keep up with. He's so fast. The way he thinks about the game seems like it’s far beyond everyone else’s process. It’s the same thing in the last Olympics, keep shuffling around until you found something that fit.
It's possible that Crosby will have a scoring outburst in the quarterfinal or semifinal, but the longer he struggles, the greater the chance that Canada will be defeated.
So far, it's been the defense that has led Canada. Not only did opponents manage just two goals in three games, but six of the team's 11 goals were scored by blueliners. Defenseman Drew Doughty was responsible for four of those goals, including the overtime game-winner against Finland that delivered Canada first place in Group B.
Canada plays in Wednesday's quarterfinal match against the winner between Switzerland and Latvia in Tuesday's qualifier. The Swiss team played well in Group C, winning twice and allowing only one goal in total, while Latvia dropped all three games. The Swiss defense has been even better than Canada's, and a low-scoring affair is likely.
Coming after that would be a potential meeting with the U.S. team, a rematch against the 2010 silver medalists looking to avenge that disappointment. The Americans faced a tougher test in Group A, and they passed it with flying colors.
American T.J. Oshie proved his shootout chops with four such goals against Russia in the group-stage game to make the home crowd extremely disappointed. Meanwhile, Phil Kessel has been scoring in bunches to keep pace with his sister, who stars for the U.S. women.
NESN editors Mike Cole, Nicholas Goss and Zack Cox all pick the United States to win gold, but they also acknowledge that the medal stand is a tossup right now with a half-dozen teams in the running for the top three spots.
Which hockey team will take gold in Sochi?
With Canada taking the third seed in such a deep tournament, beating Switzerland and the United States just to reach the gold-medal game would leave it beleaguered in a potential matchup with Russia or Sweden, or perhaps even Finland again for the gold.
Moreover, with Canadian forwards struggling to find the net and Crosby with a goose egg as a goalscorer, the team could easily get shut out of the gold-medal game this time.
Russia remains a strong candidate for the top spot led by a potent roster that includes Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk. However, it faces a qualification game against Norway just to reach the quarterfinal against Finland. Sweden would likely play it in the semifinal for a very tough road to the gold-medal game as well.
Then again, home ice can be a powerful advantage, as Crosby knows very well.
The tournament is wide open, and Canada has more than enough talent to survive, but between the ragged play on offense and the wealth of quality teams left in the tournament, three straight wins is too much to expect.