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On their sixth day here, Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team was instructed to rest. Ordered to in fact. Coach Mike Babcock made no bones about it. After playing twice in 48 hours, the team received a mandatory day off, Babcock noting that on Saturday, “coaches are not allowed to talk to players besides saying ‘hi' to them."
Only Babcock, executive director Steve Yzerman and assistant GM Kevin Lowe appeared for a press conference at the MPC – and it featured the usual between games chatter. Lowe revealed that he once dreamed of being the first NHL player ever to play in Russia – an interesting little aside. Yzerman went on at length about how far the minnows of international hockey have progressed since his playing days and then Slovenia made a prophet of him within the hour, knocking off heavily favoured Slovakia 3-1 in the first major upset of the men’s tournament.
Everybody else involved with Team Canada – players, staff, coaches – dispersed around the complex to drink in the full Olympic experience and recharge their batteries. For some, that meant taking in the Russia-USA game, the feature game of the preliminary round.
For Canada, the heavy lifting starts again Sunday night with a game against Finland that will determine first place in Group B and an automatic berth in Wednesday’s quarter-finals. It is the final game of the preliminary round too, which means once it is played, the match-ups for the playoff round will be set. Slovenia’s win – and just as importantly Slovakia’s struggles, after getting to the semi-final round in Vancouver – could throw a monkey wrench into all the preconceived notions of how the match-ups will shape up.
For better or for worse, this is the new reality of international hockey.
“Four times I've been a part of this, and the only thing I expect is don't expect it to go the way you expect,” said Yzerman. “It never does. I don't think anybody appreciates is how much better all these smaller, lesser powers, how much better they've gotten. I go all the way back, at least at the men's level, to 1985 and how the Swiss programs and Norwegian programs and Austrians — I played against them 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and I've watched these athletes walk around the village. They're as big, bigger, they skate as well.
“These countries have gotten better and it's getting harder to win every single game. We run into some of the guys on the other countries that I played with that are now in management with other countries and they comment as well: there's no such thing as an easy game anymore.”
That said, Finland represents the sternest test for the Canadians thus far. The medal-round format is the same as it was in Vancouver four years ago, meaning the three group winners, plus the team with the next highest point total will advance to the quarters. If two teams are tied, then it goes to goal differential.
If the Canada-Finland game is close, then both teams could theoretically make it through to the quarters directly without having to play an extra game in Tuesday’s qualification round.
Canada is plus eight on goal differential, based on 3-1 and 6-0 wins over Norway and Austria, while the Finns are plus-9, thanks to 8-4 and 6-1 victories over the same two teams.
“This tournament, in my opinion, is about getting better each and every game,” said Babcock. “As long as we can do that, we’ll have an opportunity. There are great teams here. It’s a fine, fine line.
“I tell people this all the time, whether it’s a Stanley Cup or a bantam triple-A championship, or an Olympic gold medal, you’ve got to line up the moon and the stars going into it. It just doesn’t happen.
“All we can do is continue to work on our execution and our preparation and giving everyone the best opportunity to succeed. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Predictably, Babcock used the first two games to experiment with his line combinations and perhaps the most surprising development there was that the duos or combinations from the same NHL teams that Canada selected to enhance chemistry – Sidney Crosby playing with Chris Kunitz; Jonathan Toews with Patrick Sharp; Ryan Getzlaf with Corey Perry – haven’t really shown any more functionality than the lines which started from scratch.
In Canada’s opener, the nominal fourth line – of John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn – was probably its most effective unit. Babcock must have thought so too because it’s the only one he left together for the second game. Sharp didn’t dress for that one and the player who replaced him on Toews’ wing, Patrick Marleau of the San Jose Sharks, contributed three assists. The other winger on the line – Jeff Carter, playing in place of Rick Nash – scored three goals.
Defensively, they’ve been excellent, surrendering just one goal in the opener which came as a result of a miscommunication between goaltender Carey Price and his defencemen, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, on a power play. Otherwise, Price and Roberto Luongo have combined to stop 42 of the 43 shots they’ve faced.
“I think we’ve talked about getting better from the start and I think if you look back at the first six periods of this tournament, we’ve gotten better every period,” said defenceman Duncan Keith. “We just want to keep doing that.”
Keith has played only the occasional shift with Drew Doughty so far, the defensive pairing that was so strong for Canada in the gold-medal victory in Vancouver. Mostly, he’s played with Shea Weber, who has two goals in the tournament, both by deploying his lethal slap shot. But Doughty has two goals as well. Unlike the NHL, where he plays for a team, the Los Angeles Kings, that emphasizes defence at all costs, here Doughty has an opportunity to be more creative offensively and he is making the most of it. Moreover, his skill set seems especially suited to the international-sized surface.
"It's good for carrying the puck and rushing the puck and stuff like that,” said Doughty, “but it's also tougher defensively. The guys have more speed through the neutral zone, so if your gap's not good, you're going to be screwed. It's both good and bad."
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