SOCHI, Russia — For all the preparation for this tournament, for all the pressure to defend Olympic gold and reign supreme in Canada’s favorite sport, the Canadian men’s hockey team essentially approached the opener like this: Let’s play. Let’s see what happens.
The Canadians took Thursday’s 3-1 victory over Norway for what it was – a warm-up against a hard-working, physical team that had only one NHL player on the roster. They were out of sync early. They were dominant in the middle. They didn’t score enough. They gave up a power-play goal because of a miscommunication.
Fine. This was just the first prelim game. Now they have good and bad to study, a base to refine as they try to build to – and through – the medal round.
“It’s time to get playing so we can figure out what we have, and that’s what we did today so we can improve tomorrow,” said coach Mike Babcock. “Now we suddenly have some video on our own guys. We can talk about our team game.
“Once you trust each other and you trust your structure, your skill comes out because you’re in the right spots and playing fast. I thought we did a lot of good things tonight. Don’t get me wrong. But we can be way better. We understand that, and we’re confident that we’re going to be.”
Babcock is not being cocky or cavalier. He is a big-picture guy and wise enough to know two things: One, this tournament is a process – a short process, but a process. Two, it’s better to be patient than to push too hard too soon.
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When the Canadians held their orientation camp in August, Babcock had the players play ball hockey to walk through the systems. Hockey Canada could not pay to insure the players’ NHL contracts, so they could not skate, so Babcock had the ice covered in Calgary and tried to get work done, anyway.
Babcock spoke to his assistant coaches and the management group constantly during the season, evaluating personnel, going over scenarios. When Team Canada arrived in Sochi, Babcock squeezed in a practice immediately. He seemed to be doing everything he could to get out of the gate quickly in the face of so many factors, like the long trip, the time change and the larger international ice sheet.
But he actually didn’t tweak too much, or go into too much detail, or hold too many video sessions.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” said winger Jeff Carter.
The Canadians didn’t need to put on a show, like they did in Vancouver four years ago and the Russians had to in front of their home fans here. The top team in each of the three groups – and the top second-place team – advance directly to the quarterfinals, but it doesn’t matter how you play in the prelims and might not even matter if you get stuck playing a qualification game to make the quarters. What really matters is how the prelims prepare you for the medal round.
On Wednesday morning, Babcock ran into Henrik Zetterberg, his captain on the Detroit Red Wings and the captain of Team Sweden. Zetterberg bemoaned the fact that the Swedes had to play Wednesday night, while the Canadians didn’t start until Thursday night. “You get to practice one more day?” Zetterberg asked. Babcock looked at it the other way around. What’s the point of practicing if you don’t know what to practice? He wanted to play to see where the weaknesses were.
The Canadians used familiar combinations of NHL teammates against Norway: Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby; Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry; Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews; Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo. “I think there’s definitely some advantage to that,” said Crosby. “It’s not everything, but I think it helps the process for sure.”
But that obviously was just a starting point. Already the coaches were experimenting. After Sharp played on the power play, for example, they would use the opportunity to try Patrick Marleau with Toews on the next shift instead.
“We’re a work in progress,” Babcock said. “We don’t know what our lines are going to be. So we’re trying to figure that out, and as we go, we’ll learn more.”
The Canadians looked disjointed in the first period. They had the puck virtually the entire second, outscoring the Norwegians 2-0 and outshooting them 14-2. They gave up a goal early in the third, after goaltender Carey Price went behind the net, miscommunicated with one of his defensemen, coughed up the puck and let a deflection leak in. But they got it right back when Drew Doughty stepped around a defender in the high slot, weaved and scored on a sweet backhand.
[Also: Drew Doughty delivers vintage Olympic performance]
The Norwegians played physical. They collapsed in front of their net, giving the Canadians the outside on the big ice, blocking shots. “What I liked about tonight’s game for us is that it was hard,” said Babcock, drawing out the “r” sound like a pirate. The Canadians stayed patient, which is easier said than done when you have that much talent and you’re expected to win every game 10-0. “We didn’t get down,” said defenseman Shea Weber. “We didn’t get frustrated with the way they were playing. We just kept going.”
“We’ve got to trust our instincts,” Toews said. “We’ve got to play together and just make plays we know are there. There’s systems that we really want to pay attention to on the defensive side, but for the most part, we’ve just got to have patience and confidence with the puck, and I think that got better as the game went on.”
It should as the tournament goes on, too. The prelims set up perfectly for the Canadians. They had three practices and a morning skate before Norway. They play Austria on Friday night. Then they get a practice day before facing the toughest opponent in their group, Finland, on Sunday.
There isn’t much time to build, but this is the time to do it. And so Matt Duchene and P.K. Subban will join the lineup Friday night, and Roberto Luongo will start in goal against the Austrians, and Mike Smith will back up, and they will play and see what happens again.
“They’re all going to get going, and they’re going to get better and better, I think,” said Mats Zuccarello, Norway’s lone NHLer, as proud as he was of his team’s performance. “It’s the best players in the world on that team.”
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