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‘Babcock effect’ leads Canada into World Cup semis

Canada will play its old Cold War rival, Russia, in Saturday’s World Cup semi-final, with the winner advancing to the best-of-three final starting next Tuesday.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Matt Duchene will tell you: The first time he played for Canada on a Mike Babcock-coached team, he found the experience unexpectedly daunting. Duchene was the youngest player selected for Canada's 2014 men's Olympic team in Sochi, and while many of his teammates were holdovers from the previous gold-medal-winning team in Vancouver, he was a newbie – which made him ever-so-cautious when dealing with his coach.

"I was scared to death of the guy in Sochi," Duchene said with a smile. "Not that he's mean or anything, but he knows what he wants, and he's very intense. I'd never see that before. I think last time I sat back and watched too much. I was a little intimidated.

"I didn't want to be the reason we didn't win the gold medal, if that makes any sense – instead of trying to be the reason we did, or contribute to the reason we did.

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"This time around, I vowed to myself I wouldn't let that happen again. This time, I knew what to expect."

Canada will play its old Cold War rival, Russia, in Saturday's World Cup semi-final, with the winner advancing to the best-of-three final starting next Tuesday.

Canada is on a 13-match winning streak in best-on-best competition, and while that isn't an official statistic, it is the current reality. Unlike some years, when things have not gone according to plan, most of the questions during this event have focused on what is going right with the Canadian development program.

Superior in-their-prime talent is one reason for Canada's success. Exacting preparation is another. But the largest intangible may well be its continuity.

Call it the Babcock effect.

If Team USA's sputtering performance proved anything, it is that teams cannot ease into an event of this magnitude. If the chemistry or energy or scoring isn't there right away, your tournament can be over in the blink of an eye.

Canada, by contrast, has all kinds of holdovers from Vancouver, beginning with Babcock behind the bench and extending through the core pieces in the lineup. There are eight members of the 2016 World Cup team who also played for Canada in 2010 – Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Joe Thornton.

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Six others – Duchene, John Tavares, Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Carey Price – were on the 2014 that won in Sochi.

There is continuity here. Some of the players have played together internationally, on and off, for more than a decade. That helps them slip seamlessly into a system for the second, or in some cases, even the third time.

But it takes a successful ringmaster to pull it all together, a fine line that coaches need to walk at these events, motivating the players without being too overbearing or heavy-handed. What players like about Babcock is his plain-spoken nature. He doesn't speak in hyperbole and doesn't overcomplicate matters.

"What I've found over time is if you just do your job, your simple job and everyone else does theirs, you have a lot of success together," Babcock said. "That's what we're going to try and do."

Canada's past two Olympic wins came during a midseason break in the NHL schedule, when players were all humming along in high gear. Babcock has stressed here a couple of times that asking players to play at such a high level before NHL training camps even open represents a completely different challenge.

"But I think the best of the best deliver when it matters," Babcock said, "and to me in the end, that's the measure of the coach, the goalie, the players and the scorers – what you do in the big moments."

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The Vancouver Olympics were a coming-out party of sorts for both Toews and Doughty, both of whom were early in their NHL careers and brought the sort of youthful enthusiasm you saw throughout this World Cup's under-24 team.

Toews has three goals already in the tournament, but acknowledged the other night that he isn't quite where he wants to be – even if his three-point performance in the game against Team Europe looked pretty good.

"It's mid-September," Toews said. "It's not easy to do the things you do all year at top speed when you'd usually just be in training camp. I think we're doing some good things, considering that, but we know there's another level we have to get to if we want to continue to have success."

Toews is a perennial candidate for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top defensive forward, and Babcock has been an admirer for a long time. Canada has only given up two goals in three games thus far, after recording back-to-back shutouts in the medal round in Sochi. It is this willingness to play a defence-first style that has characterized most of the country's recent international success.

"But I don't think our structure hurts our creativity at all," Toews said. "At the same time, we want to manage the puck a little better and make sure we're limiting our mistakes. For us, we know we're going to get our chances as it goes along.

"I think the one thing we're doing well is we're never getting too comfortable."

As for Duchene, he's become comfortable in a good way on this team, heading into Saturday's win-or-go-home game with the Russians.

"I love pressure; I think everybody does on this team," Duchene said. "We expect it. Growing up, when I watched [Joe] Sakic, [Steve] Yzerman and [Mario] Lemieux wearing the Canadian jersey, I expected them to win. That's ingrained in you as a kid. When we get here, that's the expectation – and something we take very seriously. It's a big honour to put on the jersey. We want to represent the country as well as we can."

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