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For the third time in three games, coach Mike Babcock has adjusted his line-up up front, and this time, the odd man out is Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis.
St. Louis was an 11th hour addition to the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team after his Tampa teammate Steven Stamkos bowed out because of injury, but he dressed for both of Canada’s first two wins over Norway and Austria respectively, and actually saw some time on the Sidney Crosby line.
But for Sunday night’s game against Finland, which will determine the winner of Group B and automatic bye into the quarter-finals, Babcock took St. Louis out of the line-up and put Patrick Sharp back in. The other changes: Carey Price starts in goal, with Roberto Luongo as the back-up, and Dan Hamhuis returns on defence in place of PK Subban.
Canada and Finland are both 2-0 thus far.
If Canada can defeat Finland in regulation to earn the maximum three points, they will finish first overall in the round robin and get the No. 1 seed and an automatic berth in the quarter-finals, ahead of Sweden, which also has nine points, but would lose the tiebreaker on goal differential.
Looking ahead, the No. 1 seed would play a quarter-final match against the winner of the 8-9 game, between Austria and Slovenia, a far more preferential matchup than the alternative.
Should Canada lose to the Finns in regulation, the Finns would earn the No. 1 seed, Canada would fall to No. 4 and likely have to play Russia in the quarter-finals for the third straight time in the Olympics.
There are some long-shot scenarios if the Canada-Finland game turns into a monster blowout, one of which could see Russia sneak in as the No. 4 seed - but that requires Canada to lose by eight or the Finns to lose by nine. Unlikely, at this level.
It gets far more complicated if the Canada-Finland game goes to overtime, because then Sweden would be the only undefeated, untied team and finish No. 1. The United States has eight points, off two regulation wins and one shootout, but they could potentially be overtaken by Finland on the third tie-breaker, most goals, for the second seed.
Some of the matchups in Tuesday’s qualification round are set. No. 6 Switzerland plays No. 11 Latvia; No. 7 the Czech Republic plays No. 10 Slovakia, and No. 8 Austria plays No. 9 Slovenia. Norway finished 12th and in all probability, will play No. 5 Russia.
Babcock is a notorious mix-and-matcher when it comes to forward lines and the only one that remains intact from Friday’s win over Austria was one that he conjured up on the fly – Jonathan Toews between Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau. Carter scored three goals, and Marleau assisted on all three.
Sidney Crosby’s new linemates are Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn, while Matt Duchene is scheduled to start with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, while the fourth line will feature John Tavares, Rick Nash, Chris Kunitz and Sharp. Kunitz's is Crosby's regular linemate with the Pittsburgh Penguins and in a past life, played on the same Anaheim Ducks line with Getzlaf and Perry. But he gets new linemates this time around.
All along, the indications had been that Price would be the starter once the games started to matter. Unless something catastrophic happens against the Finns, it is likely his job for the rest of the way.
"We had a plan coming in and we haven’t changed our plan," said Babcock. "I've said this many times, at the Olympic Games you're allowed one change."
After the game against Finland, the elimination portion of the men's tournament starts.
Babcock had to split up his nominal fourth line to make these adjustments, and it restores Bergeron to a line with Crosby, where they played together on the 2006 world junior tournament and then again in the early stages of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
It is all part of Babcock's master plan - not just to keep everyone guessing, but so that the players can develop a familiarity with more than just one new teammate.
"Benn, Bergeron and Tavares have been a great line," said Babcock. “But the great thing about it, is that I can put it back at any time. I’ve got those lines set up where the wingers and go back and forth seamlessly. Kunitz and Nash can go tonight with Crosby in a heartbeat. So we’ll see what happens.’’
And while the plan in goal and on defence looks clearer now, Babcock has left himself some room to maneuver with his forward lines, depending upon how things unfold.
"I told Sharpy he wasn’t going, I told Subban, I told Duchene, these are great players, great people that are committed to us winning a medal,” said Babcock. “It’s all about the medal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s personal, when you tell a guy (he’s not playing), it’s personal. But it’s not about that, it’s about Canada. What I do know about this tournament, when you win at the end you made the right decisions, if you don’t, you get second-guessed.”
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