February 19, 2014 5:29 pm
Updated: February 19, 2014 10:08 pm

What Canada’s men’s hockey team could learn from Team USA in Sochi

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WATCH: Team Canada and Team USA ready for semifinal showdown

On paper, the Canadian and American men’s hockey teams’ tournaments look very similar.

Both won two games in regulation and one in extra time during the preliminary round. Both successfully defeated their quarterfinal opponent to set the stage for a semi-final meeting between the two rivals.

But their playing styles couldn’t be more different. And Team Canada should be taking notes.

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“I would say the Americans” look like the best team so far, said Ryan Kennedy, associate senior writer for The Hockey News.

Canada had the easier group in preliminary play and did not look like the dominant team everyone was expecting, with the exception of the game against Austria they won 6-0.

They beat the lowly Norwegian club by a score of 3-1, much closer than anyone would have anticipated, then took out Austria the next day in their best performance of the tournament.

Canada was unable to clinch the top seed with a regulation win over Finland – Drew Doughty won it for Canada in overtime. Keep in mind this was not the strong Finnish team people are used to seeing: It was missing Valtteri Filppula, Mikko Koivu and Aleksander Barkov, their top three centres.

Phil Kessel #81 of the United States celebrates with Joe Pavelski #8 of the United States after scoring his second goal in the first period against Slovenia, both assisted by Pavelski, during the Men’s Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day nine of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Shayba Arena on February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Martin Rose/Getty Images

The U.S.A. looked much more dominant in a group with better teams. They beat a Slovakian team that boasts NHL superstars Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and goaltender Jaroslav Halak 7-1. They also disposed of a weak Slovenian team 5-1.

The U.S.A.’s only close game was a shootout win over the Russians, the most exciting game of the tournament thus far.

The elimination of Russia Wednesday is a blessing for both Canada and the U.S.A., as the host country would be a force to be reckoned with in the medal round.

Canada also got an easier quarterfinal draw, playing a Latvian team that shocked the world when they upset Switzerland on Tuesday. The Americans had a much more difficult opponent in the Czech Republic. The scores clearly did not reflect this as Canada won 2-1 in a hold-your-breath kind of game, while the U.S.A. easily dropped the Czechs 5-2.

European-style defensive schemes have traditionally “given Canada problems because of the style of play, which tends to be very conservative … they lean on their goaltending and defence and kind of trap it up,” he explained.

Canada has been easy for teams like Latvia, Norway and Finland to defend against – their European style of defence sees everyone collapse towards the net and wait for Canada’s offensive players to make mistakes.

Finland likely knew they could never keep up with Canada in a high-pressure end-to-end game. So while Canada had a massive amount of time spent in the offensive zone, the Fins kept them to the outside.

The Latvians did the exact same thing in the quarterfinal.

Playmakers were unable to get their passes through and the only shots Canada was able to get off were from low percentage positions. Many of the shots were blocked as well.

Using this defensive strategy, Finland kept a Canadian team full of NHL superstars to one goal in the first three periods. The less talented team from Latvia held Canada to two goals – an accomplishment for a team with only one NHL player in their lineup. Even Norway held Canada to only three tallies.

Hockey is very much a game of adjustments. If you try the same thing over and over again, the other team will adjust and take that option away. This works both offensively and defensively.

Canada’s problem is that they haven’t adjusted.

Opponents have been happy to keep the likes of Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews to the outside when they’re in the offensive zone and the Canadians seemed content to remain there. Many of these players love to generate offence from behind the net, something much more common in NHL hockey than in Europe.

Canada’s team was built on speed, a precious commodity on the wider international ice surface. Canada has the fastest team in the tournament – other than the Russians and Americans, no one else comes close.

But for the most part, Canada hasn’t used that speed.

A team built for speed should operate with a quick-strike mentality, flying up the wings and scoring off the rush. Yet, in all three of their games Canada has looked like they want to play an NHL-style puck possession game, getting the puck into the zone and cycling it down low, waiting for a chance to present itself in front of the net.

Against a team that collapses to their net like Finland and Norway did, a chance in front of the net is going to be very hard to come by. Canada was forced to pass it along the boards and back to the blue line on dozens of occasions against Finland – no chances materialized in primary scoring spots.

Canada has the best player in the world in Sidney Crosby, but even he can’t score from behind the net.

Canada’s defencemen have more goals than the forwards – a clear sign your offensive strategy needs to change. Following the game against Latvia, defencemen have scored seven goals, while forwards have just six.

Another team built around speed is the U.S.A. The difference is that they’ve been using that to their advantage.

The American team has been flying, using their speed to bust into the zone and open up lanes for passing and shooting. They haven’t been allowing teams to set up defensively.

Using speed forces the other team to make mistakes and causes confusion, often leading to players being out of position and therefore better scoring chances.

Add in the fact that the Americans are one of the most talented teams in the tournament, and they have looked basically unstoppable. Had Russian goalie Sergei Bobrovsky not been outstanding in net against them in the preliminary match-up, that game could have looked a lot different on the scoreboard.

Canada and the United States are the only two teams in the tournament made up entirely of NHL players. They have had the most adapting to do when it comes to playing on the big ice in Sochi. That means changing the way you play. So far, the Americans have done a better job at that than the Canadians.

Zemgus Girgensons #28 of Latvia and Sidney Crosby #87 of Canada face off during the Men’s Ice Hockey Quarterfinal Playoff on Day 12 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 19, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Canada needs to speed up and adjust to the defensive scheme the U.S.A. puts into use. If they don’t, then a couple goals from the speedy American forwards could be all it takes to crush Canada’s hopes of repeating as Olympic champions – or even making it to the gold-medal game.

“The teams are very familiar with each other, they all play against each other in the NHL,” Kennedy said.

As talented as the Americans are, even they don’t compare to the depth on the Canadian squad. There’s no doubt the Americans have watched every second of Canada’s games and have picked up on the strategy used to keep them off the scoreboard.

“Right now, you would probably say the U.S. [has a better chance] but I think when they actually meet it’s a coin flip,” Kennedy said.

As far as getting used to the international ice in the final games of the tournament, Canada may want to take a page out of the American playbook.

The semi-final game between the two rivals gets underway Friday at 12 pm ET / 9 am PT.

The winner will play the winner of the other semi-final between Sweden and Finland in the gold medal game on Sunday at 7 am ET / 4 am PT.

The two semi-final losers will play for bronze on Saturday at 10 am ET / 7 am PT.

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