SOCHI, Russia – Chris Kunitz stared down at his gold medal, standing on the Bolshoy Arena ice with 24 of the greatest hockey players in the world, all clad in red sweaters.
“If feels heavier than it is. Pulls your neck down,” he said.
The weight was lifted from Kunitz and linemate Sidney Crosby in Canada’s 3-0 gold medal victory over Sweden on Sunday night in Sochi. Both had played well during the tournament. Neither had a goal to show for it, as Team Canada played a series of close games that were defensively dominant but low scoring.
As GM Steve Yzerman said, many just expect Crosby to have high point totals in every tournament. He wasn’t, but was unwavering in his approach to Canada’s system.
“He just stuck with the game plan. He played discipline and he played smart,” said Yzerman.
Crosby was the best player on the ice in most games, even if his goal total remained at zero. Naturally, he broke through at a very opportune time.
The Canadians were up 1-0 when Crosby scored on a brilliant individual effort. He stripped the puck from Jonathan Eriksson of Sweden at the blue line, raced the other way with the puck and then put it off the skate of Henrik Lundqvist on his backhand.
“I haven't scored on him that much, to be honest with you. So it was nice to finally score on him,” said Crosby.
It was also nice to score in Sochi.
“I think just regardless of what happened in the prior games, this game was the biggest one and we all knew that. Regardless if I scored that or not, we all wanted to make sure we did our part,” said Crosby.
“You get a chance like that late in the second to know you can go up two, you want to make sure that you make the most of it. I remember in Vancouver I missed one with a couple minutes left and they ended up tying it. Nice to be able to get that one and get a bit of a cushion.”
Kunitz added to that cushion with an unassisted goal in the third period, snapping one past Henrik Lundqvist for the 3-0 lead and his first of the tournament.
Crosby and Kunitz might be scoreless linemates, but perceptions of them in Sochi couldn’t have been starker in contrast.
Crosby was seen as one of the best players in the tournament, possessing the puck and being dangerous in every game. Kunitz, meanwhile, was still seen as a player that didn’t quite meet the standards of his teammates; a player that was there because of his chemistry with Sidney Crosby on the Pittsburgh Penguins, but who had yet to produce offensively when skating with him.
“I don’t really pay attention to that,” said Kunitz of the critics. “My teammates expect me to play a certain way. I was brought here to do my game. It’s not something different. People know the way I play.”
A lot of people gave Kunitz grief during the Olympics, turning his very presence on Team Canada into a punchline – this writer included. So he picked a hell of a time to finally shut up the critics.
“It felt really good to finally put one in and finally contribute to the guys,” said Kunitz.
“Better late than never.”