Canada vs. Sweden: Line-by-Line Breakdown of 2014 Olympic Gold-Medal Hockey Game
When Canada and Sweden meet on Sunday, it will be a match between the two most dominant teams in modern best-on-best hockey, the two clubs that between them have won all the Olympic gold medals since the Dominik Hasek-led Czechs won in 1998.
While some North American fans felt the Canada-USA match in the semifinals was equivalent to the gold-medal game, this is in fact the most fitting battle, the ultimate contest between the two teams that have posted the best records against top opponents since the NHL and the IIHF were able to reach an agreement to send the best players in the world to the Olympics.
Who will win this pinnacle bout? That will only be answered by the game itself, but nothing prevents us from going down the rosters and performing a line-by-line comparison to determine who should hold the edge.
Read on to see how the rosters of these two Olympic powers stand up.
Canada: LW Chris Kunitz, C Sidney Crosby, RW Patrice Bergeron
Canada's top line was the team's most dangerous offensive unit in its semifinal victory over the United States, generating nine scoring chances. Kunitz, Crosby and Bergeron didn't score a goal and have yet to score a goal as a unit, but they are trending in the right direction.
Sweden: LW Daniel Sedin, C Nicklas Backstrom, RW Loui Eriksson
Sweden's top line is heavily dependent on guys who marry offensive talent to defensive commitment. Backstrom may be the most underrated player in the game because he's frequently passed over as "Alexander Ovechkin's assist machine," but he's a brilliant playmaker and a gifted two-way guy. He's joined by similar players, both of whom blend passing with goal-scoring offensively.
Canada's top line didn't score again, but it did out-chance the Americans 9-2 in its last game. There's too much talent on that unit to overlook.
Canada: LW Jamie Benn, C Ryan Getzlaf, RW Corey Perry
Benn was the hero for Canada against the United States, providing the de jure second assist on his own goal, the lone marker the Canadians needed in the game. Beyond that, Benn adds yet another physical player to the Perry-Getzlaf tandem, which combines a highly effective physical game with potent scoring powers.
Sweden: LW Alexander Steen, C Patrik Berglund, RW Daniel Alfredsson
The Swedes are loaded to the gills with brilliant two-way players, and that extends to the second line. Anchored by Ken Hitchcock acolytes Steen and Berglund, who play under the famously conservative coach in St. Louis, this trio has combined for 11 points. Alfredsson leads the way with two goals and two assists.
The caveat here is that the advantage may not be as decisive as it appears at first glance. While Canada's firepower is such that the Swedes can't match it, this Swedish line thrives at shutting down the opposition, and in a low-event matchup, there's no telling who wins.
Canada: LW Patrick Marleau, C Jonathan Toews, RW Jeff Carter
Canada's "third" line isn't really a third line, but it has been used as the team's go-to shutdown unit and so falls under this designation. All three are effective two-way players, equally competent in all three zones, and while Toews' offence has fallen off in deference to his other duties, both Carter and Marleau have been effective at driving scoring in these Olympics.
Sweden: LW Jakob Silfverberg, C Marcus Johansson, RW Gabriel Landeskog
There is a lot of young talent on this line, which hasn't been able to produce offensively for Sweden so far in the tournament. Landeskog is a true star able to go head-to-head with top Canadian lines, but Johansson and Silfverberg, while useful players, aren't at his level.
Three of the the four best players in this comparison play on the Canadian team.
Canada: LW Patrick Sharp, C Matt Duchene, RW Rick Nash, LW/RW Martin St. Louis
Martin St. Louis is listed here but didn't play in the semifinals, as Canada's coaching staff opted for the traditional NHL four lines rather than working the 13th forward in on the odd shift. The other three players provided the Canadian team with solid, if limited play; they were used as a real fourth line, meaning the top nine got significantly more minutes.
Sweden: LW Carl Hagelin, C Marcus Kruger, LW/C/RW Jimmie Ericsson, RW Gustav Nyquist
Sweden has three decent NHL players in its bottom four, as well as Ericsson, a big versatile utility forward who plays a solid defensive game, scores at a respectable clip and was named the best forward in the Swedish Hockey League last season.
Canada's line of NHL stars contrasts favourably with Sweden's rather young depth unit.
Canada: LD Duncan Keith, RD Shea Weber
It's hard to go wrong with either of these players, both of whom are in the conversation for the title of best defenceman in the world. Weber is an imposing physical presence, can move the puck and has a blistering shot; Keith is more of a positional defender who has a true gift for passing.
Sweden: LD Niklas Kronwall, RD Jonathan Ericsson
The Detroit Red Wings' top pairing is filling the same role for Team Sweden. Kronwall is an exceptional defenceman and frequently underrated when compared to other top rearguards. He also enjoys excellent chemistry with Ericsson, a solid top-four defender at the NHL level.
The Swedish duo is competent, but Canada's top pair is a shade or two beyond that.
Canada: LD Marc-Edouard Vlasic, RD Drew Doughty
Doughty may have been Canada's best defenceman in the run to the gold-medal game. He leads the team in goals (4) and points (6) and has frequently been the difference for a Canadian team that has struggled to score. His partner Vlasic is very much a classic defensive defenceman, but he's been steady.
Sweden: LD Alexander Edler, RD Erik Karlsson
Sweden's offensive defence pairing can score like few other units in the tournament. Karlsson is probably the single-best offensive defenceman on the planet today, an incredibly skilled weapon that adds a valuable dimension to the Swedish blue line. Edler is having a shockingly bad season in Vancouver but is also an established threat.
This could go either way, but we've chosen here to defer to Karlsson's unmatched offensive brilliance and to give Edler the benefit of the doubt over Vlasic owing to the career track records of both players and the strong work of the Swedish pair in this tournament.
Canada: LD Jay Bouwmeester, RD Alex Pietrangelo, LD Dan Hamhuis
The St. Louis Blues tandem of Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo has been Canada's weakest unit, but considering the competition, that isn't exactly a damning comment.
Bouwmeester played a pivotal role in Canada's winning goal against the Americans, and Pietrangelo is one of the top up-and-comers in the NHL. Hamhuis, like Martin St. Louis, didn't play in Canada's semifinal match against the United States, as the coaching staff decided to commit to three steady defence pairs.
Sweden: LD Niklas Hjalmarsson, RD Johnny Oduya, LD Oliver Ekman-Larsson
The Chicago duo of Hjalmarsson-Oduya and brilliant youngster Ekman-Larsson round out the Swedish roster. Ekman-Larsson didn't play against the Americans but really ought to be in Sweden's top four (perhaps in place of Alex Edler). He's not the most underrated player in hockey simply because so many people say he is, but he's certainly the most underrated player by Sweden's coaching staff.
This one is also debatable; it's essentially Pietrangelo and company versus Ekman-Larsson and company. The assumption here is that Ekman-Larsson won't receive enough ice time from his coaches to win the day.
Canada: Starter Carey Price, Backup Roberto Luongo
Price was an uncertain starter for Canada entering the Games; there wasn't clear separation between him and Luongo, and the older Canucks goalie was Canada's incumbent No. 1. Any questions about Price have been resolved over the course of the tournament, however, and more specifically in his shutout victory over the United States.
Sweden: Starter Henrik Lundqvist, Backup Jhonas Enroth
Unlike on the Canadian side, there was never any question as to who would backstop the Swedes. Lundqvist has arguably been the best goalie in the NHL over the last half-decade or so and always gives his team a chance at winning. He won gold in Turin in 2006.
At least on paper, Lundqvist's history and reputation give Sweden the edge. Price is an exceptional goalie, though, so it is far from certain which team will get the better performance in this particular game.
- First Line: Canada
- Second Line: Canada
- Third Line: Canada
- Depth Forwards: Canada
- First Pair: Canada
- Second Pair: Sweden
- Depth Defencemen: Canada
- Goalies: Sweden
Much of Canada's success in this tournament has come from head coach Mike Babcock's ability to get his offensive superstars to play an ultraconservative game, one predicated on the team taking the chances it gets but ensuring first that the opposition gets nothing.
On Sunday, Canada faces a Swedish team that has always played a defence-first style of hockey, a club built on its strength on the blue line and in goal and that has augmented those strengths with defence-minded forwards.
In many ways, the game can be likened to a one-on-one battle between the individual winners of the Hart and Selke awards. Canada has the most talent, the strongest overall game, but that doesn't mean that Sweden's defensive prowess won't win the day when the two come head-to-head. Sunday's game should be thrilling and much closer than this line-by-line breakdown superficially indicates.