It wasn't the easiest ride, nor did it ever feel like they were at peak performance, but for the third time in four tries this century, the Winter Olympic gold medal in men's hockey is returning to Canada.
Carey Price stopped 24 shots, and the attack lit up the lamp once in each period, as Canada cruised to a 3-0 victory over Sweden in Sunday's gold-medal game in Sochi.
From start to finish, this game encapsulated the Canadians' dominance.
The Canadian defense ran their shutout streak to nearly 165 minutes in Russia, with Latvia carrying the distinction of the last team to find the back of the net. Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz spread out the goals evenly, and no Team Canada player had more than one point.
It was a team effort through and through, indicative of the Canadian spirit pervasive throughout these Games.
The 2010 gold medalists, Canada are the first repeat champions since the Soviet Union captured gold in both 1984 and 1988. Canada, who won the first four Winter Olympic golds, have the most of any country with nine tournament victories.
But no matter their dominance, this hardly felt like a normal Olympics for the Canadians. Repeat golds weren't something that happened in the modernized, NHL-featuring Olympics. Famously, Canada failed to even win a bronze medal at both Nagano in 1998 and Turin eight years later.
This motivated group made sure that never happened.
Neither Canada nor Sweden had lost a game heading into Sunday, which guaranteed one of the pair would become the first unbeaten Olympic champions since 1984. As noted by Dan Marrazza of NBC Olympics, this was the first time since 1928 the Canadians went through an entire Olympic tournament without a loss or tie:
Price, the unwavering superstar for Canada in these Games, was again spectacular. Despite the Swedish roster being ravaged by injuries, their goal-scoring opportunities were numerous, and their players were motivated to bring home another gold. They last earned the top honor in 2006 in Turin.
A single sequence in the second period highlighted Price's excellence. With Sweden desperately trying to tie the game at 1-1, a strange, knuckling deflection near the net looked almost certain to get past him and into the net.
But as he has throughout his time in Sochi, Price did the near-impossible, leaping through the air and snatching the puck with his glove. His time in Sochi ended with only three goals allowed in five appearances.
Not long later, Crosby was picking up a Swedish turnover, deking Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway and sneaking a puck through the right side of the net to give Canada a 2-0 lead.
The Sochi Games paled in comparison to Vancouver for Crosby, who became a national hero with his overtime goal to defeat the United States. Steady and composed as always, though, he was in the right place at the right time to help lead his country to victory.
That second goal was a crippling blow for a Sweden squad that could have used some luck Sunday.
Already considered a heavy underdog, the already injury-riddled Swedish roster suffered another critical absence that surprised many before the game. Though listed on the active roster, Nicklas Backstrom failed to appear for the pregame skate and was a late scratch.
Per Larry Lage of The Associated Press via Yahoo Sports, Swedish Olympic Committee spokesman Bjorn Folin said Backstrom tested positive for a banned substance "in an allergy medication that Backstrom has taken for the past seven years."
Playing on the top line with Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson, Backstrom joined Henrik Zetterberg, Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen as a list of stars who were either lost to injury in Sochi or didn't take part in the Games.
With much of their goal-scoring prowess sitting at home or on the end of the bench, Sweden was bound to attempt a conservative approach.
“They’re a puck possession team,” Ryan Getzlaf told Heather Loney of Global News before the game. “Anyone who’s played against the Swedes knows that they like to have the puck and move it around. We’ve got to do much the same as we did (against the United States).”
Heading into the third period, it was apparent the Swedes were gassed by the effort they exerted in the first 40 minutes. Canada took their turn at a puck-possession style, holding for good shots and peppering Lundqvist whenever they saw fit.
Lundqvist performed admirably, stopping 33 shots, but it wasn't enough.
Kunitz rocketed a slap shot at the 9:04 mark in the third period past the Swedish goaltender, all but wrapping up the gold medal. It had to feel like a triumphant moment for Kunitz, the Penguins winger who had undergone a surprising amount of criticism since his selection.
As Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News pointed out, one side of the splintering selection had to feel good about themselves Sunday:
What this means for both sides ultimately remains unclear.
Changes can and will come from these countries' rosters in four years, and perhaps even structural changes to the Olympics. Clamoring by NHL teams to have their players banned from Olympic competition only continues to grow louder following the glut of injuries in Sochi.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has said a decision could come later this year on whether NHL players are allowed to compete in 2018. If they are, Sweden and Canada will certainly be among the medal favorites. If not, the entire hierarchy of Olympic hockey will be altered.
For now, NHL players are wearing Olympic medals around their necks and look quite happy. And for the second time in as many trips, the country most famous for their hockey prowess made their home fans proud.
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