SOCHI, Russia – Now that the Winter Olympic hockey tournament has started, we can start separating the actualities of the “big ice” that NHL players are competing on vs. the hype leading up to Sochi.
For example: After all the talk about how it was going to leave North American players frightened and confused … well, Team USA vs. Slovakia happened.
Phil Kessel was skating like Sonic The Hedgehog across the larger sheet. The mobile, puck-moving American defense possessed the puck in the defensive zone and activated offensively; the Slovak defense, plodding by comparison, surrendered seven goals, many of them in transition.
“We almost used it to our advantage with our speed and taking the puck wide,” said captain Zach Parise.
You can see why Slovakia’s team management was willing to give up first-born children to spring smooth-skating Lubomir Visnovsky from the Islanders, but were denied because of his injury rehab. Putting defenseman Milan Jurcina out there against the Americans’ speed … it’s like they lost a bet or something.
If you need a primer on the big ice differences, SB Nation broke it down succinctly:
Overall, the NHL players were still getting a sense of how the big ice changes their games.
Patrick Sharp, Team Canada: “The angles are different and it changes power plays and penalty kill. But we’re enjoying the challenge of playing on the big ice.”
David Backes, Team USA: “They were cruising and we were trying to match it, find our systems and find our way around that big ice. I think we figured it out pretty well in that second, but the first was a little bit of a feeling out time.”
Paul Stastny, Team USA: “The ice is big. We try to transition the game, and try to get good puck possession on the D-zone. You try to play a run-and-gun game and you’re going to be exhausted.”
The most interesting line about the big ice arrived from Mike Babcock, Team Canada’s coach – because as much as it gives players room to skate, it actually takes away some real estate offensively for defensemen.
“The interesting thing for me … what I learned tonight about the big ice is that the big ice isn't very big,” said Babcock after Canada’s 3-1 opening win over Norway.
“What I mean by that is the offensive zone is way smaller, lengthwise, so the [defensemen] have a harder time getting in the middle to shoot the puck. Our active D got chances; our sliding D got no chances because they can get to you way quicker.”
It didn’t seem to affect Shea Weber’s blast that opened the scoring, although Canada had six skaters on a delayed penalty. But Canada’s other goal from a defenseman, Drew Doughty, was an aggressive move to the slot rather than a point shot.
“So we spent all this time talking about the ice being way bigger, but the scoring areas inside the dots is smaller,” said Babcock.
“So is it bigger or smaller?"