Norway wasn't supposed to put up much of an opposition to Canada's men's Olympic hockey team – but they kept it close for a lot longer than anyone imagined possible. Austria isn't expected to pose a genuine threat either – but in Olympic hockey, who ever really knows?
On a day when lightly regarded Slovenia hung in with powerful Russia for a time, Team Canada also got off to an uncertain start Thursday against Norway, skating away with a 3-1 victory in the Olympic opener for both teams at the Bolshoi Arena.
Can we say this with any greater certainty? At this early stage of the proceedings, Team Canada is decidedly still a work in a progress.
Canada dressed 20 players, two more than permitted in a NHL regular-season game, and coach Mike Babcock took advantage, by mixing matching and otherwise experimenting with his lines to see where chemistry might eventually develop.
"Once you trust each other and you trust your structure, your skill level comes out," said Babcock. "Then you're in the right spots and playing fast. I think we did a lot of good things tonight, don't get me wrong, but we can be better. We understand that and we're confident that we're going to."
Babcock wants the Canadians playing an up-tempo style, heavy on the forecheck, and designed to put pressure on the smaller, but surprisingly quick Norwegian skaters. It requires a certain shift in the mindset because most of the players on his team log big minutes in the NHL and thus, learn to pace themselves throughout the game. Sidney Crosby, for example, played just 4:49 in the opening period – far less than he would in a Pittsburgh Penguins' uniform.
Crosby played mostly with his regular winger, Chris Kunitz, but Martin St. Louis occasionally spelled Jeff Carter on the right side and Crosby and St. Louis seemed to be developing a connection.
Canada's lines are so deep that it was hard to predict who might break out for them offensively, after a nervous and uncertain start. It turned out to be elements of what is nominally the fourth line that finally got them going.
"I thought we generated a lot of good chances, I thought we could have had a lot more goals," said Crosby. "We did some good things, but you know what? They played good as a team. Every team is here for a reason. We respect them. We know we have to earn every bit of ice."
After a scoreless first, Canada opened the scoring 6:20 into the second when the referees signalled for a delayed penalty against Norway, Jamie Benn drawing the call. But before Norway could gain control of the puck, Shea Weber launched a shot from the left point that fooled goaltender Lars Haugen.
Presumably, that goal resulted in an enormous national exhale, everybody relaxing and calling off the Royal Commission.
Benn followed at the 15:19 mark, snapping a wrist shot past Haugen after a nice cross-ice feed from Patrice Bergeron, who earned his second assist of the game. John Tavares created the space for Benn with a smart net drive down the middle, freeing up space for Benn.
"It was a great play by Johnny to drive the middle and suck the defenceman with him," said Bergeron. "I had that lane wide open for Jamie who made a perfect shot."
"Opening up the play like that is huge on the big ice. It creates a lot of room for the puck carrier and that was the play there."
Many of Canada's problems in that jittery first period came as a result of playing too much on the perimeter.
Canada held a 14-2 edge in second-period shots and that didn't include Jonathan Toews tipping a point off the post.
Norway briefly got back into 22 seconds into the third on a power-play goal by Mathis Olimb after goaltender Carey Price and his defencemen got their signals crossed behind the net, allowing Olimb to retrieve a loose puck and eventually Patrick Thoreson tipped it in.
But defenceman Drew Doughty, who led the team in minutes through two periods, restored Canada's two-goal lead, driving all the way in from the point, and lifting a backhander past Haugen.
"We got better as the game went on," said defenceman Alex Pietrangelo. "Anytime you're playing with a new group, there's going to be a little bit of a feeling-out period there. I think we got a lot better as the game went along. I thought we got our legs underneath us. Things can only get better from here."
They'll need to.
The Austrians are up right away Friday, and they are coming off a lop-sided loss to Finland in their opener.
Babcock gave defenceman PK Subban and forward Matt Duchene seats in the press box for the opener, but they'll be in the line-up against Austria. The suspicion was that St. Louis would be the odd man out but he was effective in limited playing time against Norway, which will give Babcock a decision to make.
"There's a little more time and space," said Crosby. "That being said, when you're wide, you're a little further from the net, so your angles are different when you're shooting. I think you have to think shot a little more … Here you have to find ways of getting the puck through."
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