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There are three great and pressing questions in Canada these days.
Who will be prime minister after the next election?
What will Toronto Mayor Rob Ford do next?
And who is going to play with Sidney Crosby?
Sunday night against Finland it was Jamie Benn, with whom Crosby has no history, and Patrice Bergeron, with whom he has a great deal. Crosby’s usual Pittsburgh Penguins winger, Chris Kunitz, who was added to this team solely on the notion that he and Crosby had chemistry with the Penguins, was dressed but dropped to a “fourth” line with Rick Nash and John Tavares.
If it is not exactly the talk of Canada, it is certainly the talk of Canadians in Sochi – including, one presumes, the coaches and management of Team Canada. After Canada’s 2-1 overtime victory over Finland, it is about to enter the Olympic time of no return: You win, you advance. You lose, you’re toast.
At the silly ball hockey camp staged last summer in Calgary on the ridiculous grounds that insurance was hard to come by, Crosby skated – sorry, walked and, once in a while, skipped – between Kunitz and Patrick Sharp.
Head coach Mike Babcock said at the time that no one should read much into his ball hockey combinations. As far as Babcock was concerned, the fans were more than welcome to make up whatever line combinations they wished.
“When they get them all worked out,” he joked, “tell them to send them to me.”
As of this moment, they’re still coming in.
The notion in the fall was that top goal scorer Steven Stamkos would be on Crosby’s wing, but that fell through when Stamkos could not recover well enough from a leg he broke in November.
Stamkos’s position was given to Marty St. Louis, a natural centre who can also play wing. At the first practice and first two games over here, St. Louis was indeed with Crosby. But Sunday night Babcock decided to make St. Louis a healthy scratch.
Crosby had been initially tried with Jeff Carter, another good scorer, but that hadn’t worked. Babcock had said if Carter insisted on passing back to Crosby instead of shooting, as was the situation in Team Canada’s first practice, he wouldn’t be playing long with the Canadian captain and the country’s best player. He wasn’t.
Kunitz was moved so that Bergeron, a centre, could join Crosby as a right-shot winger and a sometime faceoff man.
There was valid thinking behind this. Bergeron and Crosby were once sensations in their brief experience together at the world junior championships. At the 2005 tournament in Grand Forks, N.D., Crosby, Bergeron and Corey Perry formed a line and Bergeron finished as the top scorer and with MVP honours. A year later, they played together again in the 2006 world championship and, again, it worked, with Bergeron finishing second in tournament scoring.
They had chemistry then; would they have chemistry now? Add in Benn, the most pleasantly surprising of the relatively unknown Canadian players, and the potential should be excellent.
Playing against the Finns, however, can be like trying to work your way through Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch. The Finns are perhaps the Olympic tournament’s best checkers, adroit with sticks, picks and trapping. On a night when most of the play was what critics of the European game call “chess hockey,” the new line did not shine. In fact, it was hardly noticeable.
That is not to say Crosby did not have a game. He drew the penalty on Finnish forward Jarkko Immonen – added to the lineup to replace the injured Aleksander Barkov on Finland’s top line – and it was Crosby, on the power play, who sent the puck back to Shea Weber so that Weber could hit a wide-open Drew Doughty coming in from the left point for the game’s first goal.
As for five-on-five play, the game was at times so turgid that no one stood out. Crosby called for pucks Benn could not deliver. It wasn’t until late in the third period that one Benn pass across the goalmouth nearly found Crosby’s stick for a good scoring chance. In overtime, Crosby tried to set up Bergeron but they failed to connect.
Not much to say for more than 60 minutes of play, even though Canada won in the end. Ever diplomatic, Crosby was not about to concede that the fans might still want to send Babcock line suggestions.
“It was good,” he said. “We held onto the puck a fair amount. They weren’t giving a lot.“ Asked which of the three games Canada has played so far he was happiest with, he did not hesitate: “First, two I thought we generated a lot. There were some good chances, some good looks. I think today was a little less. It was a tighter game. But you always want to score. You always want to create more.”
And that is exactly what Canada looks to Sidney Crosby for – to score, to create.
“Don’t read anything into anything that happened here today,” Babcock said at the goofy ball hockey scrimmage.
The same, perhaps, could be said for what happened here in Sochi on Sunday.
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