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First, a general observation about Mike Babcock’s coaching style – NHL or international. Babcock always mixes and matches his lines. Right up until the end of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Babcock was tinkering with them until he got them just so. Sidney Crosby played with half-a-dozen wingers, until they finally settled on Jarome Iginla and Eric Staal in the gold-medal game. Jonathan Toews started way down the depth chart, but eventually was playing big minutes, a lot of them with Rick Nash and Mike Richards as a shutdown unit.
The point is, blending, adjusting, changing lines on the fly until the chemistry clicks was always going to be part of Canada’s modus operandi. Of all the lines that Babcock has tried, only one – which came by accident – has more or less stuck together. That would be Toews centring Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter. Of the 18 scoring points accumulated by Canada’s forwards in this tournament, they have accounted for nine, with Marleau and Carter unexpectedly leading the pack with four points apiece.
Altogether, six of the 14 forwards haven’t hit the score sheet yet (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Matt Duchene, Patrick Sharp and Chris Kunitz), while three others have just one apiece. Crosby has two assists, as does Patrice Bergeron, while Ryan Getzlaf has three points.
But it isn’t just Canada that is having trouble scoring. Only five players in the entire tournament have more than two – Carter and Canadian defenceman Drew Doughty, plus Austria’s Michael Grabner (five), the United States’ Phil Kessel (four) and Sweden’s Erik Karlsson (three).
The reality is, playing hockey on the larger international sized ice surface has resulted in reduced body contact, fewer scoring chances overall, and a lot of idling in neutral. The only times a team has been able to score in bursts is when one of the lower-seeded teams has a lull, or confidence lapse. Generally speaking, the hockey has resembled a tournament-wide chess match, and the common watchword uttered by all teams is ‘patience.’
“By forcing something, you're going to end up digging the puck out of your net, because you're forcing something that's not there,” explained Crosby Monday morning, during player availability at the Bolshoy Arena.
“There's a balance between taking what's given to you and still making sure that you're going after them and not sitting back and playing the same. I think we know the difference between the two, and I think we've done a really good job of going after them, but still not taking unnecessary risks to do that.”
Canada won all three games in the first round, outscoring their opponents 11-3.
But according to Crosby, “I think that nobody's going to remember what the scores were in the round-robin games, to be honest with you. I couldn't tell you what the scores were in Vancouver, or Torino, or Salt Lake. So ultimately, it's what we do from here on in. That's the most important part.”
Canada’s next opponent will either be Switzerland or Latvia and though most expect the Swiss to advance, it is not a certainty. The two teams met in the preliminary round, with Switzerland pulling out a 1-0 victory in the final 10 seconds of regulation. Canada has played Switzerland in each of the last two Olympics, and both games have been tight. Switzerland won on the strength of Martin Gerber’s goaltending in Turin and Canada turned the tables on them, winning in a shootout in the preliminary round in Vancouver. In that game, Crosby had a chance to shoot twice in the shootout, not quite the six attempts that the USA’s T.J. Oshie had in Saturday’s game against Russia.
Canada has the former Swiss national coach Ralph Krueger on its staff for this tournament and Krueger will undoubtedly present a tactical briefing beforehand if the two teams ultimately do meet.
Thus far, Duchene, Sharp and St. Louis have each sat out one game and Babcock hinted Sunday night that he would shift the forward lineup again for Wednesday’s quarter-final match. However, don’t expect any changes on the blueline, where Babcock is more than satisfied with what he’s seen so far.
“We’ve got three really good pairs,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you, (Dan) Hamhuis and P.K. (Subban) haven’t got much of a chance. I mean the pairs are good. There hasn’t been any changing of players there just because they’ve been real solid.’’
For his part, Crosby does not believe his revolving cast of linemates is an issue. Against Finland, Babcock tried him with Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn. Crosby and Bergeron have previously played together in both a world junior tournament and an Olympics.
“The challenge is to try to play to your best,” said Bergeron. “He’s obviously the best player in the world. It’s about trying to find him when he’s open, but also it’s getting open for yourself, not just trying to feed him. He’s a smart enough player to get open and see the right area to go to. I’m trying to do the same thing as well so he has some options.”
Nash added this about Crosby: “He’s a tough guy to keep up with, he’s so fast. The way he thinks about the game seems like it’s far beyond everyone else’s process.
“It’s the same thing in the last Olympics, keep shuffling around until you found something that fits. The great thing about being a player is you don’t have to worry about that stuff. We have Mike (Babcock) to make those decisions.”
So is playing with different linemates almost every day a challenge?
“No, I think it doesn’t really change how you play or what you do out there," Crosby said. "I think you’re always aware of who you’re playing with, and what their strengths are, but I don’t think it changes what you do out there. I don’t think you really have a chance to over think too much. As far as what you’re doing individually, it’s more your game plan as a team is what’s going through your mind, rather than who you’re necessarily playing with. All the guys here are so good, I think you can just read off each other, no matter who you’re playing with.”
Six of the 11 Canadian goals have come from defencemen Doughty and Shea Weber. But when Babcock was asked if the rest of the players needed to elevate their play to Doughty’s level, he answered: ``I think they are playing at a pretty high level. The teams we’re playing against are good, they’re playing hard. To me, just keep playing and find a way to do what you do to help your team. Doughty scored the goals last night, but the team won.
“That’s what we care about. The team won. It doesn’t matter if that was Sid or Toews or Weber, no one cares.’’
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