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There is a predictable and widespread panic that wafts across Canada when things don’t go smoothly right off the bat in a men’s Olympic hockey tournament.
Think about 2002, and the blowout loss to Sweden in the opener. People were ready to convene a Royal Commission.
Think about 2010, and the need to go to a shootout against the Swiss and the preliminary round loss to the Americans.
Then, think about how they both turned out.
Yes, two gold medals. So to read too much into Canada’s iffy start Thursday against Norway would be undeniably shortsighted.
The Canadians followed a nervous first period with a dominating second and were good enough in the third to earn a 3-1 victory over an undersized, but plucky Norwegian squad.
Afterward, Canada head coach Mike Babcock noted the primary lesson was the big Olympic ice wasn’t so big after all.
How to explain this seeming contradiction? Simply: the international ice surface is 15 feet wider, but the offensive zones are slightly smaller because of how they are configured compared to the NHL’s ice surface.
“So we spent all this time talking about the ice being bigger but the scoring areas inside the dots are smaller. So is the rink bigger or smaller?” Babcock asked.
Good question. Canada will have a few more days to determine an answer.
But the biggest single issue is the biggest single issue every time a team gets thrown together in a 72-hour period and then is asked to play a team game crisply and efficiently. It usually can’t be done.
(Oh, the Americans did all right – routing Slovakia 7-1 in their opener – but Russia wasn’t great either, letting Slovenia hang around for the better part of two periods before finally putting it away.)
Babcock has 25 players at his disposal for the first time in Olympic history, and the three who weren’t dressed Thursday will be in the lineup for Friday’s date with Austria. Goalie Mike Smith will back up starter Roberto Luongo, and both defenceman P.K. Subban and forward Matt Duchene will get into the game.
Most players at this level are used to logging huge minutes for their NHL teams, but that didn’t happen Thursday. Only Drew Doughty (20 minutes 41 seconds) and Alex Pietrangelo (20:23) played more than 20 minutes. Sidney Crosby played just 15:51, Ryan Getzlaf just 13:24, John Tavares just 11:31.
Jamie Benn played fewer than nine minutes, but had a major impact on the result. He drew a penalty that led to Shea Weber’s goal (1-0) on a delayed call and then scored what would be the game winner (2-0) on a pass from Patrice Bergeron, the open ice in the high slot created by Tavares’s net drive.
“We may have tried to do too much early on,” Pietrangelo said. “Once we simplified our game – you look at that goal by Benner there, that’s a simple play, driving the net like that. With the size and speed that we have, that’s something we’ve got to start generating.”
According to Crosby, nothing much really changed from the first period to the second, other than the Canadians started to adjust to unfamiliar teammates.
“You’re playing your first game and everyone’s probably thinking about where they need to be and systems – probably a thousand things going through their minds,” Crosby said. “I think just once we settled in and realized how we play and how we need to play, we started to get some good results.”
It didn’t look pretty at times and the term “work in progress” came up in virtually every postgame analysis, but there were good signs, including the fact the nominal fourth line, playing limited minutes, was extremely effective.
Once they start playing for keeps, every team will have a strong top end. Canada’s depth at the bottom of the roster could theoretically be the difference maker.
“I don’t think it’s a fourth line,” Crosby said. “That’s really the bottom line. We have different guys who can contribute. We want to get that pace. I thought everybody was into it, especially in the second and third, and we had a lot of speed. You could see [the Norwegians] started to wear down. That’s what our game’s going to look like.
“If we put 60 minutes of that together, we’re going to generate a lot.”
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