The American and Canadian men’s hockey teams both collected eight of a possible nine standings points in the Olympic tournament’s preliminary round, as each won twice in regulation and once beyond.
But despite their identical records, the twin North American hockey powers couldn’t look and feel more different.
On the one hand, Team USA is riding high as it awaits its opponent in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. The Americans tied Finland for the most goals scored in round-robin play with 15, while also allowing just four goals against – the third-fewest of the 12 participating nations. They have the tourney’s leading scorer in Phil Kessel (4g, 3a), a solid goalie tandem headed by Jonathan Quick and the No. 2 seed behind Sweden after winning Group A.
In the realm of intangibles, the United States also owns arguably the biggest Sochi moment thus far – a pulsating shootout win over the host Russians that made an international star out of T.J. Oshie and thrust the team into the mainstream spotlight across the Atlantic.
On the other side, the Canadians’ unbeaten run through Group B play couldn’t have been more dour and angst-ridden even though they outscored their opponents 11-2. Much of that isn’t the fault of the actual hockey players, as sky-high external expectations make nothing short of dominance disappointing.
Still, there is a definite sense from the defending Olympic champs that they haven’t come close to accessing their potential. That’s understandable after they’ve been together for barely a week, but I’m sure Hockey Canada would prefer that its de facto all-star team look a little more explosive as it prepares for its first elimination game.
Canada’s status as the pre-tournament favorite certainly colors the mood around the team, although I see another difference between them and the more buoyant Team USA: coaching. Pittsburgh Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma has made almost all of the right moves as American head coach, while the tactics of the Detroit Red Wings’ Mike Babcock could more easily be called into question in his second run with Team Canada.
When shaping his coaching philosophies, Bylsma admittedly borrowed much from Babcock while playing under him in Anaheim about a decade ago. However, it’s clear the two have very different personalities, and they are reflected in their respective bodies of work.
Bylsma’s a prototypical “player’s coach,” for better or worse. Various members of Team USA have said he’s comfortable making jokes and generally developing relationships, even during the limited time available in Sochi. Bylsma isn’t a pushover, but his decisions indicate he believes comfortable players are effective players.
To wit, he’s kept the Toronto-based duo of Kessel and James van Riemsdyk together on USA’s top line, a unit that also includes San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and has combined for 15 points (5g, 10a). Bylsma’s also leaned heavily on the top defense pairing of Ryan Suter (23:27 per game) and Ryan McDonagh (20:38) while employing his Pittsburgh duo of Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik together for most shifts.
Meanwhile, Babcock has seemingly committed to making everyone on Team Canada uncomfortable. He’s constantly harped on the need for his players to keep their shift times short, which makes sense in theory but rarely in practice. Rolling four lines sounds good when a talent pool is as deep as Canada’s, but you still want your best players to get every opportunity to influence a game.
Sidney Crosby, the fourth-highest point-per-game scorer in NHL history, is skating 15:43 per game thus far in Sochi. That’s the second-most among Canadian forwards – only Jonathan Toews (16:52) has gotten more opportunity – but not nearly enough for the game’s most prolific attacker.
Babcock has even been making noises about Crosby’s line being assigned to neutralize the opponent’s best forward trio. No disrespect to Crosby’s passion for defense, but that’s just weird. Furthermore, Crosby’s had different linemates for each game as Babcock shuffles players up and down his lineup, so how can anyone get used to their roles?
This is not to say that Canada’s plan won’t work out in the end. The Olympics are designed to allow the best teams time to gel before the stakes get raised, so Babcock’s squad is on equal footing with fellow top seeds Sweden, Finland and the United States. Canada is actually ahead of its pace from 2010, when it missed out on a bye because of an early loss to the Americans.
Nevertheless, I’d rather see a consistent approach like Bylsma’s in a short tournament such as this. Yes, Babcock has seniority and a gold medal to his name, but he’s been outcoached by his former player so far.