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Of all the curious developments in the preliminary round of the 2014 Sochi Olympics men’s hockey tournament, the most puzzling of all may be Canada’s inability to get on the power play.
How is it that among the 12 teams, Canada has received the fewest chances to play with the man advantage (only four in three games, all victories)?
Sweden and Russia lead with 13 chances apiece, the Czechs are next with 12, and even the weakest teams – Norway, Latvia and Slovenia – have 12, 11 and 10 power-play opportunities respectively. No other team has fewer than seven.
In theory, a team with Canada’s speed and talent level should be drawing penalties on a far-more regular basis. This development just defies logic.
“It’s amazing,” head coach Mike Babcock said Monday, an off-day for Canada as it prepares for Wednesday’s quarter-final game against the winner of Latvia-Switzerland (who play Tuesday). “We have the puck all the time and never get on the power play.
“That’s different here, too. When you have the puck in North America and you dominate the other team in the NHL, you’re on the power play at least four or five times a game.”
The lack of power-play time is one of the reasons 11 of 14 Canadian forwards, including NHL stars Sidney Crosby and John Tavares, have yet to score a goal in the tournament.
On the other hand, players of that calibre rarely go three games in a row without a goal – so you’d have to think they’re due, right?
“Some guys on the team are used to putting up three points a night, and when that doesn’t happen, you can’t get too frustrated,” winger Rick Nash said. “All these teams are great teams and the best players in their own country. It’s just something, you’re more worried about the team having success than your individual success.”
Thus far, six of Canada’s 11 goals in its three games have been scored by two defencemen, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber – in part because teams are collapsing back to the net, leaving no room for the forwards to get through.
Matt Duchene made a point in the immediate aftermath of this past Sunday’s 2-1 overtime win over Finland: If the NHL ever thought about switching to the larger international-sized ice surface, all you need to do is watch the smothering defensive hockey on display here to immediately dismiss the idea.
“You look at the NHL sheet, you can create a scoring chance from anywhere,” centre Jonathan Toews said. “You want to shoot from the blueline, go ahead and do it. You want to shoot from the half wall, go ahead and do it … It’s tough for defenders and goalies, no matter where the puck is. Things can change so quickly. Some of the small changes we’ve made to our game have really helped.
“Maybe I’m biased, but I prefer the NHL-sized ice surface.”
Of all the line combinations Babcock has tried, the only one that’s consistently producing chances is Toews between Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter, which has nine of the 18 points recorded by Canadian forwards.
It isn’t just Canada that’s having issues scoring either. Canada is third overall in the goals scored (11), behind Finland and the United States (15 each). Russia has just eight goals, six at even strength. Sweden, the 2006 Olympic champion, has 10 goals, but only five at even strength.
The team that’s having the greatest success adapting to the big ice is arguably the U.S., which has 13 even-strength goals, all scored against Slovakia and Slovenia. Its two goals against Russia came with the man advantage.
But that was then – and this is now, the single-elimination portion of the tournament, where a team either wins or goes home.
“Nobody’s going to remember what the scores were in the round-robin games, to be honest with you,” Crosby said. “I couldn’t tell you what the scores were in Vancouver [in 2010], or Torino , or Salt Lake . So, ultimately, it’s what we do from here on in that’s the most important part.”
Babcock made the point that people sometimes have short memories. At the Vancouver Games, on the NHL-sized ice, except for one aberrational game against Russia in the quarter-finals, Canada’s were all tense, low-scoring matches as well.
“It’s a defensive, defensive game here, but in saying that, every game we played in Vancouver on that ice was a grind-fest, too,” the coach said.
“The best thing for us is what happened [this past Sunday]. This is what we’re in for. That’s what the game is. If we think we’re getting seven [goals], we’re watching the wrong sport. That’s not what’s happening. It’s going to be 2-1.”
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