-- SOCHI, Russia -- It might have lacked the emotional oomph of the 2010 golden overtime goal by Sidney Crosby, but Canada successfully defended its gold medal with a dominating 3-0 win over a gritty, but ultimately undermanned, Swedish team Sunday to bring the Sochi Olympic tournament to a close.
Five things we learned:
1. Canada won with suffocating defense: It would have been impossible to recreate the drama of the U.S.-Canada final of four years ago, when the Americans tied the game late and Crosby won it in overtime in front of a rabid home crowd. But this effort by Canada might have been even more impressive given its absolute defensive domination throughout the tournament, but especially in its semifinal and gold-medal wins. The Canadians shut down the U.S., the highest-scoring team heading into the semifinals, 1-0 on Friday and then choked the life out of the Swedes, who had the most dangerous power play in the tournament. Canada allowed zero goals over the final two games in what can only be described as a masterful performance. The Canadians become the first nation to win back-to-back gold medals in men's hockey since the Soviet Union did so in 1984 and 1988. The gold-medal win for Canada marks the first time they have won a gold outside North America in 62 years (last came in Oslo in 1952). It also marks the first time since NHL players started competing in the Olympics in 1998 that a North American men's hockey team has won a medal of any kind overseas, let alone a gold. So much for the notion that the Canadians would struggle to adjust to the big ice. They allowed just three goals in the tournament. How good is that? One of the popular questions heading into Sunday's game was whether the Swedes could tame the Canadian beast. The notion goes back four years to the Canadians' dominating quarterfinal win over the Russians after which Russian netminder Ilya Bryzgalov famously noted that the Canadians "came like gorillas from the cage." That line was resurrected in recent days and the question was: Could anyone put the animal back in the cage? The answer Canada provided Sunday was a resounding no.
2. Familiar faces finally find the net: Talk about picking your spots. The Canadians entered the gold-medal game with 10 forwards who had not scored a goal in this tournament. So what happened Sunday? Jonathan Toews, parked on the doorstep of Swedish goalie Henrik Lundqvist's crease, redirected home a nice Jeff Carter pass to open the scoring for Canada 7:05 into the game. It was Toews' first goal of the tournament. Then, late in the second period with the Canadians really ramping up the pressure on the Swedes, Crosby took advantage of a Niklas Kronwall turnover at the Canada blue line to break in and slide a beautiful backhand deke just past the skate of a sprawling Lundqvist to make the score 2-0. Hard to believe that goal was the first of the tournament for Crosby given the chances he was creating, but there you go. Then, in the third, Chris Kunitz, perhaps the most maligned of Canadian forwards, ripped home his first of the tournament to close out the scoring. Guess it doesn't matter a bit that Canada wasn't lighting it up with what many regarded as the deepest, most talented lineup ever. You know what's creepy? The first goal of the '10 final was scored by Toews 7:10 into that game. And, of course, Crosby also scored the overtime winner. OK, maybe it's not creepy, but it's something.
3. Have to feel bad for the Swedes: They were already missing Henrik Zetterberg (the team's original captain), Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen and then just before the start of Sunday's game, Nicklas Backstrom failed a doping test, which the team believes was a result of taking allergy medication, and was unable to go. He had been centering the Swedes' top line with Daniel Sedin and Loui Eriksson. Although Backstrom hadn't scored, he did have four assists and his puck distribution was crucial to the Swedes' potent power play in the tournament. The Swedes had two power plays in the game and obviously failed to click on either. Not a knock on Team Canada, but while it did beat the silver- and bronze-medal winners (the Finns beat the U.S. in Saturday's bronze-medal game, 5-0), both Sweden and Finland were without their top players. The Americans might have been the healthiest opponent Canada faced, although they too were shorthanded, going without top-four defender Paul Martin. Canada wasn't without its injury issues, missing Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, who left the tournament with a season-ending knee injury. Still, the Swedes' depleted lineup definitely made what was already a Herculean task even more, well, Herculean.
4. Players piling on the hardware: Eleven returning members of Canada's '10 team were part of this gold-medal team in Sochi. Impressive. But consider the work done by Duncan Keith and Toews. Since the Vancouver Games, the two have won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic golds. Hope they have a big trophy case at home. Patrick Sharp is close behind with two Cups and now an Olympic gold.
5. The NHL belongs in the Olympics: So, is this it? We won't know for another six months, perhaps longer, whether this is the NHL's last kick at the Olympic can. But if it is, the NHL and its players put on a grand show. Canada reasserted itself as the greatest hockey nation in the world with gold medals in both the men's and women's tournament, but in spite of concerns about security and accommodations and the like, the tournament was almost flawless from the facilities to the players' lodging and the volunteers who kept things humming. We think it would be a big mistake to walk away from the Olympic tournament. There are challenges and negatives; nothing truly worthwhile on such a scale is without drawbacks, but watching the Canadians accept their gold medals on the sky-blue carpeting at the Bolshoy Ice Dome reinforced, at least for us, that the NHL belongs here. See you in South Korea in four years.