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Just about everybody associated with the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team will agree: It has had a decent start to the 2014 Sochi Games – three wins (two in regulation) and a bye directly into the quarter-finals, where it will play surprising Latvia on Wednesday.
But they will just as freely admit Canada probably has another gear it can get to – pivotal now that the tournament shifts to its single-elimination format.
Win and you go on. Lose and you go home. It is a clear and precise goal, and it helps focus the players’ minds.
At the two most recent Olympics in which Canada won the gold medal (2010 in Vancouver and 2002 in Salt Lake City), the United States team was far better than its North American rival in the early stages of the tournament.
In Salt Lake, the Americans went undefeated, only to lose the gold-medal final to Canada. In Vancouver, the Americans and Canadians were in the same pool for the preliminary round, which the U.S. led (nine points to five). But in the gold-medal game, Canada emerged on top again.
That is the beauty of a tournament format designed to allow teams to grow and improve the longer they’re together. Medals are not decided in the first week, when growing pains are evident. They are decided in the second, when, theoretically, it all starts to come together.
Even though Sweden was the only team to go undefeated in regulation in Sochi, the consensus is the U.S. might have had the best preliminary round, defeating Russia and clobbering Slovakia and Slovenia to earn the No. 2 seed.
Some of the less-heralded teams gave the traditional hockey powers all they could handle – despite the 4-0 score, Norway pushed Russia to the limit in Tuesday’s qualification round – but the U.S. had no such issues. It just rolled.
It is hard to quarrel with anything the Americans have done so far, other than to ask: Can they can get even better?
Canada clearly does have another level. It has been excellent on the defensive side of the puck, but nowhere near where it can be offensively, with 11 of 14 forwards still looking for their first goals of the tournament.
On the plus side, you’d have to think that, sooner or later, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry and Rick Nash are going to break out – and the urgency should be there, now that they’re into the elimination round.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to where we want to be until the last game,” said defenceman Drew Doughty, who is leading the team with four goals. “It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
Doughty suggested if the current edition of Team Canada could undergo a traditional NHL training camp, followed by an 82-game regular season, it would be unstoppable.
Sadly, that isn’t going to happen. It needs three more wins to take home the gold medal, and the second would likely be against the Americans – which might be an advantage to play another team steeped in NHL sensibilities, where players might even be able to hit someone.
Canada’s game has lacked a meaningful physical presence in the tournament, largely because of the international-sized ice, as defenceman Duncan Keith noted: “Guys can skate that extra two, four, five feet and get away. It’s tough to pressure guys.”
For Wednesday’s game, head coach Mike Babcock has assembled a line that features left winger Jamie Benn with Anaheim Ducks teammates Ryan Getzlaf and Perry. Benn played briefly with the two at a world championship a few years ago, and, according to Babcock, the goal is to put three players with size together and see if they can grind down the opposition.
“You watch our games and we’ve been on the outside a lot,” Perry said. “To get shots to the net, to get second opportunities, that’s what the three of us are going to do. We’re three big men and we can get to the middle of the ice.
“We want to get more goals from our forwards. But at the same time, we’re trying to address everything as well. The more we get inside, the more second opportunities we get, the more shots we get on net and just those things, you’re going to create chances.”
Latvia, coached by Buffalo Sabres interim bench boss Ted Nolan, is largely a mystery to the Canadians.
Latvia upset the favoured Swiss 3-1 on Tuesday to advance to the quarter-finals.
Doughty called the Latvians “a good team” following Tuesday’s practice, and added the Canadians would watch the game film to get a clearer reading on them.
But this is an eminently winnable game, at a time in the tournament when recent Olympic history suggests Canada’s team is getting ready to rumble.
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