Canada and Sweden are poised to face off for the hockey gold medal at the Winter Olympics, and it’s a matchup that observers have been expecting for years now.
While the rosters may have changed slightly, these two squads represent the last eight years of gold medal dominance in the sport—Sweden won in 2006, while Sidney Crosby helped Canada take gold in 2010.
Now, these two talented veteran squads will square off for the gold once more, and the two are strikingly similar.
Each team plays its own brand of throttling defense and has benefitted from some superb goaltending throughout the games.
It will ultimately come down to which team can be more successful in each of these two key areas in what should be a very close game.
It shouldn’t come as any shock that Sweden’s been buoyed by goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
He was the driving force behind the team’s gold eight years ago, and he’s been just as excellent nearly a decade later.
He’s a perfect 5-0 with a 1.20 goals against average and has saved 95 percent of the shots he’s faced.
But unlike in 2010 with the shaky Robert Luongo, the Canadians have the answer at goalie that they can feel confident about.
Carey Price has been brilliant in these games, and has been in a real groove recently, but has always deflected credit.
“That defensive group in front of me, they were boxing guys out and letting me have my eyes,” he told The Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno after the semifinals. “Our forwards back-checked really hard, I think that was the difference.”
While he is right that Canada’s defense has been stellar, he shouldn’t undersell his own excellence. After all, he’s got a 0.74 GAA and has stopped nearly 97 percent of the shots he’s faced in the four games he’s started.
The gold will very likely come down to which one of these excellent netminders manages to make a mistake first.
Both have been so good recently that it’s impossible to tell which one is vulnerable, but the pressure these offenses put on opposing goalies ensures that one will have to slip eventually.
Each of these teams’ goalies is able to be so excellent partially because of the smothering defense played in front of them.
There’s no underselling Lundqvist and Price’s collective excellence, but playing with guys like Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty and Jay Bouwmeester has taken them to the next level.
These defenses will likely be remembered for a long time, as Yahoo Sports Canada’s Stephen Whyno explains.
This isn't just a matchup of the two best teams in the tournament but the two best defensive teams. That's not a surprise for Sweden, which like many other European teams thrives on five-man units and the cohesive play that seems to be there from the drop of the puck. For Canada, team defence has been a revelation. Goals have been hard to come by in these Olympics, but from Sidney Crosby down the lineup, the Canadians have accepted and embraced a defensive identity. Sweden has been strong on defence despite not having Victor Hedman and then not playing Oliver Ekman-Larsson in the semifinals against Finland. Canada didn't need seventh defenceman Dan Hamhuis against the United States, either, but that's no shock given how well Duncan Keith, Weber, Doughty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo have been playing. Babcock tweaked his forward lines plenty, but there's a reason he hasn't messed with his defensive pairs. Canada's defensive performance at these Games is something fans will be talking about for a long time.
Doughty, Bouwmeester, Keith and Weber were all dominant against the Americans and were a big reason Patrick Kane and other scorers were so ineffective.
Doughty has also been the team’s motor offensively, driving a lot of their scoring opportunities, even as the team’s top line has been strangely passive.
Karlsson has had a similar effect on the Swedes, scoring four goals and four assists to power their offense.
But the difference will likely be Canada’s excellent depth on defense.
Sweden has plenty of talent with other stars like Niklas Kronwall and Johnny Oduya, but Canada has a collection of talent that’s truly imposing.
Sweden’s top line of Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund and Daniel Alfredsson has been fantastic, but Canada certainly has the talent to shut them down.
Each of these teams is familiar with playing tough, defensive-minded hockey.
Now it’s just a matter of who can execute the formula more thoroughly.
Sweden might have the experience in net, but Canada can match them with a group that’s really gelled together from Price on down.
This will be a close one, but Canada definitely has the ability to earn their second gold in a row.