Men’s hockey: One close call for Canada

Drew Doughty’s goal sets up Canada for Olympic playoff round, but what to do about Crosby?

Some say that hockey is as much a game of numbers as baseball—a series of seemingly random events on ice that can in fact be read as statistical patterns which, in turn, reveal causal relationships between human decisions and outcomes for teams, or in this case, countries.

There’ll be a test on this later. But for now it’s sufficient to know that the meaning of Sunday’s nail-biting, bottled-up game between Canada and Finland can be distilled into a single, humble, figure: one.

One, as in: one goal is not a sufficient lead to carry you through most of a game against a team as fast, as rugged and as talented as Team Finland. Or: one decent offensive flurry by an exceedingly patient team that to that point had gotten just 11 shots through to goaltender Carey Price. Or: one deft tip by Tuomo Ruutu, which let the Finns hit the locker room after two with a tie with the odds-on favourite to win the gold medal.

But conversely: one goal by Drew Doughty at 2:32 of overtime, enough to allow a nation to breathe again, while sparing Team Canada the psychodrama of a quarter-final match against the Russians, whose 1-1-1-0 record does no justice to their on-ice performance, and who will almost certainly beat Norway in a playoff qualifier.

“We needed to pick it up,” Doughty acknowledged afterward. “We were a little disappointed with that goal we let in at the end of the second. We just wanted to get it back, so we decided to pull up our socks, keep possession of the puck and create good opportunities.

“They really played good defence.”

Doughty is one pleasing story on a team that, though hardly in crisis, is not exactly firing on all cylinders. He has scored four goals in three games, all at opportune moments, while sacrificing nothing in the way of defence and cementing his reputation as one of the best big-game players this country has known. As Canadian coach Mike Babcock put it: “Drew’s got a heavy body, so he can really play without the puck. But he’s really dynamic with it.”

You could say the same of Sidney Crosby, who figured in just two of his team’s 11 goals during the round robin, and who now poses something of a riddle to his coaches. Team Canada management brought along Kris Kunitz, after all, because he and Crosby, both Pittsburgh Penguins, are one of the most productive duos in the NHL. But in Sochi, where many teams are playing a meticulous defensive game, opposing players have contained Kunitz and Babcock has been unable to find another winger who complements the captain nearly so well.

On Friday, against Austria, he tried Martin St. Louis, who played well but came up empty. On Sunday, he had Crosby centering Jamie Benn, a speedy young forward with the Dallas Stars, and Patrice Bergeron, a natural centre and one of the most intelligent players in the game.

The result was a wash. No goals for, and none against while the trio was on the ice. Yet Crosby continues to do things no players can, his brilliant passes squirting past his linemates before they realize they’re coming. Opposing goaltenders still quiver whenever he’s on the ice.

Back in 2010, when Crosby got similarly poor results for his hard work, Babcock had seemed faintly irked when asked why. He was no less pleased when the question arose last night, saying: “Everyone evaluates Sid on scoring. I evaluate Sid on winning.”

Those questions will keep coming up, though, with the quarterfinals in the offing and a Finnish blueprint available on how to contain the defending Olympic champions. There was plenty of talk after the game about how the Finns jammed up the middle of the ice – preventing Canadian forwards from entering their zone with any kind of speed – then waited for the one opportunity they needed.

And truth be known, Finland is not even the best team in the tournament at doing this. Canada gets two days off, but on Wednesday will face the winner of a qualifying-round game between Switzerland and Latvia.

Assuming heavily favoured Switzerland wins, the Canadians will be looking down the barrel of a team that finished with as many points as Russia – six – yet did so by scoring just two goals in three games. And the number the stingy Swiss gave up?

You guessed it: one.