Swedish Review of Series
The following article appeared in the monthly Swedish hockey magazine named "Ishockey magasinet". It was in the nr. 11/12 issue 1972. I have been told that the author was Sweden's most respected journalist at the time.
Let us first look at the preparations for both teams.
The Soviets started their on ice training on July 3, the Canadian team on August 15. A 43 day difference! But the Soviet advantage in condition was even greater than that. Before they hit the ice they had one month of off-season training with focus on strength. How they train to improve their strength, agility and quickness is well documented so I won't get into details here. The training almost exclusively focuses on "loading". When they are doing their running exercises it's almost always by carrying a teammate on the back. And various arm strength gymnastics is done with dumbbells.
On top of that the Russians have a very clever training combination of will and mind-training. They use very complex moves to train both the muscles and the brain. One example of that are games of football (soccer) and basketball at the same time !. They play with two balls with rugby style hitting allowed over the whole playing field. This gives the players good training for both their feet, hands and minds.
The Canadians don't have summer training in the same extent. Some of the players train individually, but most of them takes a vacation and play an occasional game of golf.
In the first four games the Soviets were in much better shape than Canada. But time worked for the NHL-pros advantage. They got their steam up once the team reached Moscow. And this proves that when you once have that basic training ( = years of training) to lean back on, then you can rebuild your condition relatively fast, even after a long summer break.
It's however possible that the pros were forced to hit their optimal form too fast. They reached their peak in Moscow but a lot of them suffered when they returned home and had a slow start at the beginning of the new NHL-season.
Extremely fine technique
If we compare both teams in terms of skating we can note that the Russians were faster and more durable, but that several of the pros hade an astonishing technique in tight traffic.
The Canadians generally skated with their legs wide apart which hindered the flow in their skating. It's a style that is effective in the NHL on the small rinks where you constantly have to be aware of body contact, but it's not so effective on the larger European rinks.
When it comes to puck control the edge has to be given to the Soviets. The Canadians could dish out and receive razor sharp and hard passes in a satisfying way, but they often caused unnecessary turnovers. They also lacked the Russian smoothness and ability to hide their intentions. When Valeri Kharlamov extends a stickhandling move to a pass, no one knows in advance if he's going to dish it out to his left or right. What I want to say is that he has finesse. The pros are more primitive in that regard.
The individual skills that the Canadian players had on the other hand, impressed me a lot. Even the Russians were aware of the NHL-stars stickhandling capacity and had a weapon against it. It was to keep the puck within the team as much as possible. Their reasoning was: If the pros can't get the puck then they can't excel, simple as that.
That tactic was especially effective in Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and in the 3rd period of the first Moscow game. But in later games the Canadians were allowed to take individual initiatives.
When Phil Esposito got the puck under control it was extremely difficult to strip it off him. Phil was also fabulous on faceoffs. In the 8th and last game the long delays during the breaks to change players was a result of the Soviets trying to get Vladimir Petrov on faceoffs against Esposito. Petrov was the only one who had a small chance (if any) to win a draw against Phil. But mostly the Canadians got the possession of the puck after a faceoff, which they used to their advantage, especially in the offensive zone.
Before the series began everyone thought that the biggest difference would be in goal. But as it turned out Vladislav Tretiak played much better than expected. At the same time Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito played worse than expected. The Canadian goalies started the series by skating far out to cut the angles. But the Russians didn't shoot from every angle as the pros did. Instead they passed the puck, often from one side to the other, which meant that Dryden and Esposito had to make quick transitions sideways resulting in poor balance.
Stand far out
Tretiak's task was easier. He quickly learned that the Canadians were shooting the puck in 9 out of 10 ties after having crossed the blue line. So it was only for Tretiak to skate far out to face the shooters. In Moscow both Dryden and Esposito had changed their styles. They didn't go out as much to face the Russians and they didn't flop on the ice as much. The goalie isn't better than what the player in front of him makes him. In my opinion the Canadians defense was stronger than Soviets. The pro defensemen were more determined and tough when they cleared bodies in front of the goal. It was rare for a Russian forward to get to the slot.
In the beginning of the series the Russians were successful in their contra-attacks, but in Moscow the Canadians had seen through Anatoli Tarasov's old tactic which was basically to have two forwards on top and at the same time have both defensemen and the center way back. In some instances the professionals answered with cautious forechecking (only one player) but very effective shadowing in the neutral zone.
Lost the Speed
The effect was that when the Soviet forwards finally entered the offensive zone they had lost their speed. They couldn't use their superior speed. Most of the goals were scored on deflections and rebounds. Some of them was also scored on mistakes by the defensemen (intercepted passes). In the last four games there were no Soviet contra-attacks that resulted in a goal. This is one of the reasons why the series so sensationally turned into Canadian favor.
Open ice hits were very rare and far between. But there were a lot of bump-ins and high sticks along the boards. There was no time to relax after a pass was delivered. The Canadians always finished their checks and seeked body contact.
The pros were determined to avoid penalties. The rumour about the Russians effective powerplay had reached over the Atlantic ocean. But they failed miserably. All in all Team Canada was penalized for 105 minutes in Moscow. 1 hour and 45 minutes. The Soviets had 45 minutes of powerplay time. But the result was poor, only 6 goals. Canada scored 1 goal in 16 minutes.
Fine penalty killing
The penalty killing by the professionals was excellent. Especially Pete Mahovlich, but also Phil Esposito did a great job while shorthanded. It was appalling to see the NHL-players optimism. Even when they were a man short they attacked.
In tight situations, especially along the boards the Canadians were superior. The Russian's strength was their split vision. They had better overview when they had a lot of room. The stickhandling was very advanced on both teams as was the ability to block shots.
The differences in interpretation of the game and organization was huge. The Canadians skated out of their own zone with the puck, the Russians always tried to pass the puck to get out. The pros always had a backup when they attacked and defended themselves. It seemed to be a golden rule to back up the puck-carrier at all times.
Basically it was a showdown between collectivism and individualism. The Russians tried to make plays on the free surfaces of the ice and the Canadians tried to narrow down their options. It's difficult to compare the various units on the teams. The third Soviet line with Vyacheslav Anisin,Vladimir Shadrin and Alexander Yakushev was outstanding on the Soviet team. They scored 8 goals in 4 games. Alexander Maltsev's line only scored 2 goals as well as Vladimir Petrov's. The defensemen scored 3.
Center on three lines
Team Canada constantly changed their lines. They mostly played with four lines. Ron Ellis, Bobby Clarke and Paul Henderson were the best players in the first two games. Clarke was then changed for Phil Esposito. The tactic involving Esposito was to have him on the ice as much as possible. In the deciding game he centered three different lines. Henderson scored five of the Canadian goals in Moscow. Esposito scored four and Yvan Cournoyer two. The pros weren't gelled together. Maybe it was a mistake to not play with entire club lines.
When it comes to coaching we could see two styles. Vsevolod Bobrov was too passive and only watched emotionless at the action in front of him. You seldom saw him do anything spontaneous. Harry Sinden and John Ferguson exaggerated the other way. They pumped themselves up as well as the players, and on occasions lost their self control.
The Russians were stronger, faster, more durable and were better organized. They should have won. But that didn't happen. Why ? The explanation can be found on the psychological level. In my opinion the Soviet team couldn't handle the emotional pressure in the series. The Canadians were more seasoned and their minds were more open to do whatever it took to win. Their intensity in the battles on the ice was devastating. On top of that they had superior self confidence and better nerves.
The Russians who had trained all summer long, immediately went back and had a training camp after their return from the first four games in Canada. It was too much for them. Many of the players told me that they felt tired mentally. They hadn't even seen their wives.
There's also no doubt that Valeri Kharlamov's injury (courtesy of Bobby Clarke) demoralized the team. Without Kharlamov the first line was ineffective.
In the last two games it struck me that it was a battered Russian team that skated on to the ice. The players weren't afraid but they were a bit hesitant, questioning some of the Canadian playing methods.
It's possible that this was the deciding factor. You know how it is in hockey. If you hesitate you're bound to lose.