Canada was, and is, the best.
It wasn’t easy. But yet it was.
Canada dominated everyone throughout the 2014 Sochi Olympics and did not trail in a game for one second. Then again, it was a bounce away from losing in the quarterfinals to Latvia.
This probably isn’t the script general manager Steve Yzerman would have written after he selected this team, but no matter—he got the happy ending he wanted and a nation demanded.
When it mattered most, Canada was at its best.
Two days after dismantling Team USA in the most lopsided one-goal victory in hockey history, Canada dispatched an undermanned Sweden in the gold-medal game, winning 3-0 for the nation’s second consecutive gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
Sidney Crosby embodied Canada’s tournament, slowly building to a celebratory crescendo in the gold-medal game when he, and the team, were in peak form. Crosby’s first and only goal of the tournament came on a second-period breakaway that gave Canada a 2-0 lead, which may as well have been a 20-0 advantage.
The Swedes were unquestionably shorthanded and did well to reach the gold-medal game at 5-0 without captain Henrik Zetterberg, center Henrik Sedin and right wing Johan Franzen. But when center Nicklas Backstrom tested positive for a banned substance related to allergy medication before the game, Sweden was so supermodel-thin down the middle that Canada’s gold became a foregone conclusion.
Alas, Sweden could have had all four of those players and it’s hard to imagine it would have meant anything.
Canada started slow and finished strong in this tournament, and much of that had to do with someone unplugging coach Mike Babcock's line blender.
The Canadians severely out-chanced Norway in a 3-1 win to start group play, yet Babcock blended. They smoked Austria 6-0 in their next game, and yet again, he shuffled. The coach was seemingly trying to ignite Crosby, who had zero goals and two assists in those two games, although he seemed to be his usual magical self, just without the remarkable finish.
Canada needed overtime to beat Finland and win Group C, but the 2-1 victory again had Babcock intermingling forwards.
He finally settled on his lines entering the Latvia game, a 2-1 nail-biter in which, once again, Crosby was held off the score sheet, but the team as a whole was almost unstoppable. Only this time, Babcock rode his line combinations (save for replacing an injured John Tavares with Matt Duchene on the fourth line) through victories against Team USA and Sweden.
The chemistry was always there with the Ryan Getzlaf/Corey Perry and Jonathan Toews/Patrick Marleau lines, but it at long last became evident in the knockout round with Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron.
Canada had just 14 goals in five games (nine coming against Norway and Austria), but it was more than enough for gold.
At the postgame press conference, Babcock offered this: “Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal? See ya, guys."
Smugness and aloofness about the unimportance of offense when he was a mad scientist in search of working line combinations aside, Canada won this gold medal on the strength of a virtually impregnable defense.
Canada allowed one goal in three knockout round games. The only time a puck found the back of the net was when Latvia ran one of the more innovative trick plays you’ll see in any sport, winning a neutral-zone draw, changing one player on the defensive side of the bench and having another player jump on from the other side of the bench to sneak behind the defense for a goal.
Team USA and Sweden could’ve benefited from that creativity, as Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Drew Doughty and Marc-Edouard Vlasic strangled the life out of any and all attackers that feebly attempted to get pucks past goaltender Carey Price.
The play of Canada’s defense is what gave the offense time to jell. Canada allowed 129 shots in six games, an average of 21.5 per game. Price allowed just three out of 106 shots to get past him; he was perfect in his final two starts, stopping 55 of 55 shots.
It’s easy to dismiss Price’s outstanding performance as a product of the defense in front of him, but there’s something to be said about the mental toughness required to make the difficult save in a one-goal contest after minutes, sometimes even an hour, of near-stagnation.
"It was a whole team effort," defenseman Drew Doughty said to Andrew Podnieks of IIHF.com. "A lot of people are going to say, ‘The goalie played unbelievable,’ or, ‘The defence played unbelievable.’ But the forwards were a huge advantage in the defensive end of the game. They backchecked so hard, as hard as they could to get back in position. They didn’t give the defensemen or their down-low center anything. That was the biggest part."
Yzerman also said to IIHF.com: "It’s the most impressive, the greatest display of defensive hockey."
The defense set the table for the offense, and the offense delivered against Sweden.
Crosby, Toews and Kunitz, all of whom entered the gold-medal game with as many goals in this tournament as the terrifying Sochi mascot bear, finally got on the scoreboard.
Toews, whose line with Marleau and Jeff Carter neutralized Team USA’s top line in the semifinal, banged home a perfect pass from Carter in the first period.
With the game technically still in doubt in the second period, Crosby raced down the ice on a breakaway and beat Henrik Lundqvist with a silky smooth backhand move.
Kunitz, perhaps the most questioned decision in Olympic history that didn’t involve figure skating judges, beat Lundqvist in the third period after numerous close calls during his first five games.
Canada is always the best team on paper. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it was also the hardest-working team. It was willing to continue pushing forward when the goals weren’t coming despite playing on ice that appeared to be continuously tilted at a 45-degree angle toward the opponent’s net.
Lesser teams may have let the frustration get to them or had a lapse at a crucial moment, perhaps a player cheating for that elusive goal that led to a goal for Team USA or Sweden that turned the tide for good.
Instead, Canada stuck to the game plan from the puck drop vs. Norway to the final horn vs. Sweden and used a suffocating defense to breathe life into an offense that never wavered in its belief that the goals would come.
"This team was totally dedicated to keeping the puck out of our net," Price said to IIHF.com, "and we really had a relentless work ethic. We did it, we’re so excited and looking forward to getting back home."
Winning this gold medal wasn’t easy, but Canada sure made it look that way.
That's what makes—and made—Canada the best.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.