VANCOUVER, B.C. - As good as the Canadian sledge hockey team has been at putting the puck in the other team's net at the Vancouver Paralympics, they've been even better at keeping it out of their own.
Through three round-robin games, Canada scored 19 goals, seven of which came off the blade of sniper Greg Westlake.
But the home country also allowed just one goal in those three games and gave up a tournament-low 15 shots on net.
Goaltender Paul Rosen, who recorded shutouts in both games he played, said he's hardly surprised by the work of his four defencemen. He called captain Jean Labonte ‘a rock’ and described Adam Dixon's puck control and breakout passes as ‘phenomenal’.
“And Ray Grassi and Graeme Murray are incredible,” Rosen added. “They're very stable. They don't do anything unbelievably special but they do everything right.“If you come through the neutral zone and your head's down, Ray's going to put you back to Sarnia.”
Dixon and Labonte finished the round robin a tournament-best plus-10. Grassi and Murray, who have less of an offensive role, were both plus-3.
The lone goal Canada gave up in the round robin came against Sweden. Grassi, the team's hardest and most frequent hitter, left his post to deliver a thundering check and another Swedish player snuck by with the puck before eventually beating backup goaltender Benoit St-Amand blocker-side.
The Canadian team responded by refusing to give up another shot for the next two periods and both Rosen and St-Amand have yet to be truly tested.
“I think defensively we've been the best team here as of yet and I think our four defencemen as a squad and our goalies have been tremendous,” said Grassi, 27.
“We've been thinking defence-first as opposed to scoring, be good in the zone, not pinching when we don't have to and usually that good breakout pass is key for us.”
The United States did not give up a goal in its three round-robin games against the Czech Republic, Korea, and Japan.
Canada will take on that same Japanese team in one Paralympic semifinal Thursday, while the U.S. plays Norway in the other.
Canadian head coach Jeff Snyder said his team's gameplan against Japan will be similar to the one it employed versus Norway in its final round-robin match.
“We dump the puck in, get a real good hard forecheck going and bang them around,”? he said.
No player did more banging in that first period than Grassi, who's been dubbed ‘The Ray Train’ by his teammates.
Norway, who Canada beat in the gold medal game at the Turin Paralympics, appeared frustrated by his play on a number of occasions.
“To get that big hit, first, second shift, I think it means something for the team,” Grassi said. “It gets our energy pumped, everybody sees it, they get going. It feels like Canadian hockey for us.”
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