After all the talking, the anticipation, the hype, and the controversies over team selection, the opener is finally, blessedly, at hand.
Canada begins its quest to defend its 2010 title in men’s Olympic hockey with a game against Norway – one of international hockey’s traditional weak teams, boasting just one NHL player (New York Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello).
The breathless anticipation about Canada’s chances in the 2014 Sochi Games tournament revolve around a series of predictable talking points: goaltending (Carey Price gets the start Thursday); the big ice (an extra 15 feet of width, which changes the angles for skaters and goaltenders alike); adapting to the time change; and, of course, the traditional challenge of trying to win in a team sport with a group of 25 players, thrown together in the past 72 hours.
“It’s time for us to go play and stop talking about everything and just show what we can do – to each other and to the world watching,” assistant captain Jonathan Toews said. “We’ve gone through a lot of technical systems stuff the last few days, and I think we’re just excited to make it work.”
Toews, along with defenceman Drew Doughty, were the two young stars that made integral contributions to Canada’s 2010 Olympic win. Both started that tournament low on the depth chart, but played their way into prominence.
It is this seminal truism of international tournament play – the need to develop chemistry in a short window – that will be put to a test again here. Many of the Canadian players – Toews and Patrick Sharp, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry – play together on their NHL teams and have a keen familiarity with each other’s playing styles.
Canada head coach Mike Babcock made it clear Wednesday, for example, he has two Chicago Blackhawks teammates (Sharp and Duncan Keith) manning the points on the team’s first power-play unit because they’ve done it so well together in the NHL this season.
For now, Babcock has split up his No.1 defensive pair from 2010 – Keith and Doughty – to play Keith with Shea Weber and Doughty with Marc-Édouard Vlasic.
The Olympic tournament is divided into three, four-team groups – and Canada is in the perceived weakest of them all, with Norway and Austria, plus a quality Finnish team that has nevertheless been depleted by the loss to injury of its top two centres.
On paper, it should give the Canadian team a clear path to the quarter-finals, although Babcock was quick to point out: “It doesn’t always go the way you expect. I think we were the sixth seed [in 2010]. So let’s just get better each and every day. Let’s just be the best we can be every shift on the ice, because you never know what shift is going to turn the game. The one you’re in is the most important, so play it.”
The tournament format gives each of the pool winners, plus the fourth-place team with the best overall record, an automatic spot in the quarters. Since goal differential is used to break ties, it means the Canadian team will need to keep its foot on the gas against the Norwegians and Austrians and try to win by the highest margins possible.
Running up the score may seem at odds with the purest of Olympic ideals of sportsmanship, but a chance to finish with the best overall record in the preliminary round gives Canada a chance to get a more favourable match-up once the elimination games begin next week.
So there is a game within the game – and Babcock said he will make players aware of the ramifications of playing hard from beginning to end.
“I don’t think you ever want to take your foot off the gas, regardless of the rules,” Doughty said. “You don’t want to embarrass teams if you have to do that, but at the same time, the goal differential is huge, so we need to be putting pucks in their net and keeping them out of ours. And we don’t want to develop any bad habits either [by letting up].”
Babcock put the team through its final paces Wednesday, and apart from picking Price as the starter for the first game, and Roberto Luongo the starter for Friday’s match against Austria, didn’t give any other hints about his lineup.
Canada has 25 players here, but only 22 can dress, so the expectation is one of Matt Duchene or Martin St. Louis will sit out the opener up front, and Dan Hamhuis will be the odd man out on defence.
Right now, Canada’s fourth line features John Tavares between Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn, which would be no worse than the second line on nine other teams in the men’s tournament.
“I think the build-up has been different for you guys than it has been for us,” Babcock said. “In the media, this is what you do. You get paid to build it up. I get paid to get ready. … But I’ll be excited to get going. Our players probably didn’t want to listen to me today. They probably wanted to play today, to be honest.
“So let’s get playing. Let’s find out if we’re any good.”
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