For months leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics, hockey fans across Canada engaged in the usual debate about which players should and shouldn't make the trip to Sochi. Even after Steve Yzerman and Hockey Canada announced the roster in January, the decisions were criticized and second-guessed and criticized some more.
It wasn't until about halfway through the third period of the gold medal game that Canadians finally breathed a collective sigh of relief and accepted that, perhaps, the brass knew what they were doing. It was controversial roster pick Chris Kunitz, after all, who scored the 3-0 dagger against Sweden on Sunday, putting an exclamation mark on Team Canada's second consecutive gold medal performance at the winter games.
And within mere minutes of the final buzzer at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, amidst glass-clinking, high-fiving and anthem-singing, it became clear that the debate, the criticism, the second-guessing was all for naught. One glance up and down the team's roster revealed that each and every player deserved to be there - and that each and every one of them was instrumental in the outcome.
From the first game - a less than dominant 3-1 victory over Norway - it was evident that for Canada to win it all they would have to play as a team. And play as a team they did.
In fact, thanks to great coaching, tenacious teamwork and contribution by committee, Team Canada may well have put together its most complete tournament since the NHL starting sending players in 1998. Not only did Canada become the first team to go undefeated since 1984, but it allowed only three goals over the course of the six-game tournament and never trailed.
The team effort was so complete, in fact, that one would be hard-pressed to choose a team MVP. That said, there were a number of players who stood out for the entirety of the tournament and deserve to be recognized; because even though there is no "I" in Team Canada, the gold medal would not have been possible without these individual performances.
Here are the top 5 players on the men's Olympic hockey team in Sochi.
5 Jonathan Toews, Forward, Chicago Blackhawks
With numbers essentially identical to those of Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby, Toews gets the nod at No. 5 for scoring the eventual gold medal-winning goal against Sweden. And while it may have been his only one of the tournament, Toews proved again that when it comes to showing up for big games, no one does it better. In addition to his on-ice leadership, the native of Winnipeg, Man., effectively shut down the other teams' top lines while creating time and space for wingers Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter. He also led Canadian forwards in ice time throughout the tournament (more than 17 minutes per game), added two assists and finished with a +3 rating. With his latest medal, Toews is now the proud owner of two Olympic golds, two Stanley Cup rings and a pair of World Junior Championships. And at only 25 years old, it's likely that he's just getting started.
4 Jeff Carter, Forward, Los Angeles Kings
Playing much of the tournament with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Marleau, Carter was the beneficiary of lots of open ice and countless pretty passes. And like any natural goal scorer, he took advantage. In addition to leading Team Canada with 24 shots, he led all Canadian forwards with three goals - all in a 6-0 win over Austria - despite playing less than 16 minutes per game. The 29-year-old from London, Ont., also added two assists and finished the tournament tied for the team lead with a +6 rating. Given the fact that Carter was considered by many to be one of the wildcard picks among Canada's forwards, it makes his performance in Sochi all the more impressive.
3 Shea Weber, Defenseman, Nashville Predators
Anyone who had seen Shea Weber in a Nashville Predators uniform knew going into the 2014 Olympics the kind of player he is. For those who hadn't, the 28-year-old defenseman's dominant performance may have come as something of a surprise. Not only did Weber consistently line up against the opposition's best forwards, and at the most crucial points in tight games, but he also played on the power play and the penalty kill. All said, the native of British Columbia averaged 21:50 minutes of ice time per game, recorded 13 shots on goal, finished with a +5 rating, and tied for the team lead in scoring with six points (three goals and three assists). Oh, and in case you missed it, he has a pretty good slap shot from the point as well.
2 Drew Doughty, Defenseman, Los Angeles Kings
From the first game of the tournament, Doughty seemed insistent on proving that he has truly arrived as one of the best all-around defensemen in the world. He may be only 24 years old, but with a gold medal (2010) and a Stanley Cup championship (2012, with the Los Angeles Kings) already under his belt, Doughty looked at times like the most poised and experienced player on the ice. Logging more than 19 minutes per game, his dependable play in his own zone was highlighted by a penalty-free tournament and a +4 rating. He also showed off his offensive flair with a number of dazzling end-to-end rushes and by tying for the team lead with six points. His four goals and two game-winners - including the overtime snipe in Team Canada's final round robin game against Finland - were also tops on the team.
1 Carey Price, Goaltender, Montreal Canadiens
When Canadian head coach Mike Babcock gave Carey Price the crease in the third game of the tournament, he was effectively telling his 26-year-old netminder that the starting job was his to lose. From that point on, Price was virtually unbeatable. After allowing one goal in each of his two round robin starts, the British Columbia native went on to allow a total of only one in the team's three elimination games, stopping 70 of the 71 shots he faced vs. Latvia, the United States and Sweden. All told, Price finished 5-0 with a 0.59 goals against average, a .972 save percentage and two shutouts (against the U.S. and Sweden, arguably the top two offensive threats in the tournament). Even more impressive than his stats, however, is how easy Price made it look; there wasn't a time in the entire tournament when he didn't appear calm, poised and in position. And while Team Canada's defense deserves a lot of credit for their tender's success, Price made the big saves when he needed to - especially in the 1-0 win against the United States, which could have gone either way.