- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
TORINO, Italy -- Well, at least no one will accuse the Canadian men's hockey team of running up the score.
For the second straight night the powerful Canadian men were shut out, this time by the suddenly fearsome Finns by a 2-0 count.
The loss, coming on the heels of an improbable 2-0 setback against surprising Switzerland on Saturday, is a tremendous blow to a team that looked on paper as though it had few, if any, faults or flaws at the outset of the Olympic hockey tournament.
Now, with the 1-2-1 Canadians poised to finish as low as fourth in their pool, there is the distinct impression that, gee, maybe Wayne Gretzky et al should have paid a little closer attention to the current NHL campaign and less to games played long ago.
Now, before the Canadian hockey confederacy implodes at any suggestion of fallacy within the hallowed halls of Hockey Canada, we acknowledge two things.
It's early in the going to write off a team as talented as this Canadian team most certainly is.
And we know that things didn't go all that well for Canada during the preliminary round in Salt Lake City and it still ended up steamrolling to a gold medal.
But there are some striking differences between what took place in Salt Lake City and here in Torino, differences that don't bode well for a gold medal repeat.
Four years ago, the Canadian team started poorly and slowly but surely gained traction. Canada got waxed by Sweden in the first game, eked out a win over Germany and then tied a good Czech team before hitting its stride with medal-round wins over Finland, Belarus and finally the United States in the gold-medal game.
But here in Torino there is no traction so far, only quicksand.
"Tonight we looked kind of dopey, to put it frankly," head coach Pat Quinn said after watching his team's goal-scoring drought reach 120 minutes, 34 seconds.
After easy victories over lightweights Italy and Germany, the Canadians have gone dry against well-coached, disciplined teams from Switzerland and Finland.
Yes, they ran into hot goaltending on both occasions, first in Martin Gerber and then Sunday in the form of Antero Niittymaki, who wasn't even on the initial Finnish Olympic roster and is only here because Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen took a pass on the Games. But this Canadian team finds itself preparing for a final round-robin game against the Czechs on Tuesday without any indication of moving forward.
"The process of becoming a team has become halting," Quinn said. "We are now a collection of individuals."
Certainly after watching a lineup heavy on grit and Hockey Canada experience with the likes of Shane Doan, Kris Draper and Ryan Smyth fail to score in back-to-back games, it's fair to wonder aloud whether they are indeed the right individuals.
Fair or not, it's interesting to imagine how things might have turned out had Eric Staal, Jason Spezza and Sidney Crosby, who have combined for 78 goals and 199 points this NHL season, or a combination of the three, been in the lineup these past two nights.
Again we acknowledge that the logic in building this Canadian team was completely defensible at the time.
Spezza, Staal and Crosby lack the experience of other young Canadian stars who have a track record of success both in the NHL and with Canadian teams. The expectation was that players like Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, who might not have statistically matched their output of two years ago, would rise to the occasion here in Italy.
They may yet do so. But through four games here in Italy, the trio has combined for two goals.
Injuries to Rick Nash limited him to just 30 games this season but he was selected to the Olympic team based largely on his play at the World Championships last spring and in 2003-04, when he was tied for the league-lead in goals with 41.
He has yet to score in Torino. Sunday night, he was denied by Niittymaki on a clear-cut breakaway.
Go up and down the Canadian lineup and there are lots of players who have not answered the bell.
Simon Gagne has one goal. Joe Thornton, one as well. Todd Bertuzzi, none.
"It doesn't feel good at all. I mean, we know we have to get better in a lot of ways," said Jarome Iginla, whose two goals are tied for the team lead.
There is still time for Canada to find the kind of groove it takes to win a gold medal, but this tournament is shaping up to be dramatically different than the one in Salt Lake City.
When on its game, Canada was clearly a dominant force, as witnessed by its 5-2 win over the unbeaten Americans in the gold-medal game.
But the level of talent on display in Italy over the past few days tells a different story altogether.
Take the Finns, for example.
Depleted by defections and injuries even before the tournament began, they have been undaunted, roaring to a 4-0 record and clinching the top seed in their pool. They will likely play the Americans in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
Teemu Selanne has emerged as the team's undisputed leader, scoring his sixth goal of the tournament against Canada on Sunday night. Defensively, the Finns give up very little and Niittymaki, the hero of the AHL playoffs a year ago, and Finnish elite league netminder Fredrik Norrena have combined to allow two goals in four games. On Sunday, Niittymaki turned aside all 24 shots.
"Obviously the media back home and all over the world have probably not given us as much credit as we probably deserve," Finnish defenseman Sami Salo said. "But as a group we felt really strong coming into this tournament. We had a really strong tournament in the World Cup and it's pretty much the same guys that are on the team. Everybody knows each other and we know the system and everybody buys into it."
In the other pool, undefeated Slovakia is proving what a grave injustice it was four years ago when the Olympic tournament format denied it a full roster and the team did not advance beyond the qualifying round.
This Russian team led by Ilya Kovalchuk, who had four goals in a win Sunday against Latvia, appears more dangerous.
The Czechs, Canada's last opponent in the round robin, are likewise a perpetual threat.
So the road that appeared so smoothly laid out just a few days ago has taken a sudden, unexpected dip for the Canadians.
"I think we will get there," Quinn said. "But we certainly have had a couple of games you don't like very well."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
8dScott Burnside and Craig Custance