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No big-ice excuses for U.S. GM Poile

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If you received a dime for every time you heard either Canadian or American Olympic officials talk about the importance of adjusting to the big ice surface in Sochi, you would end up a wealthy person.

But U.S. GM David Poile made it clear Tuesday that he’s not going to tolerate using the bigger sheet as an excuse for not having success at the 2014 Olympics.

"The fact that we have won the silver medal two times in a row over in North America [in 2002 and 2010] and got nothing over in Europe [in 1998 and 2006], I can’t accept that," Poile said. "These are good players. These are smart players. They’re skilled players. It’s different, yes, so let’s figure it out. I do not at the end of the [tournament] want to say, 'If this was in North America, we would have won; in Europe, we played and we lost.' That doesn’t make any sense to me.

"Ice surface is not something that should come up as a reason why we didn’t do well."

Not having a ball

Much was made on Twitter and in the media about Canada’s ball hockey experiment at orientation camp in Calgary. Neither the Canadian nor the American players worked out on the ice during their camps because of insurance costs, but Canadian coach Mike Babcock had his troops play some ball hockey while explaining various systems the coaching staff hopes to implement in Sochi.

We asked U.S. coach Dan Bylsma how far he felt his team was behind Canada given that the Americans didn’t play any ball hockey.

He laughed. And then he laughed again.

"I think that means we’re marginally ahead," Bylsma said.

Poile laughed as well.

"I’m pretty sure our coaches accomplished every bit as much as Canada did without the visual," Poile said.

Johnson aiming high

One of the pleasant surprises of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for the Americans was the play of defenseman Erik Johnson. Then with the St. Louis Blues, Johnson, a former first overall draft pick, was traded to Colorado in a blockbuster deal in February 2011. Since then, the Avs and Johnson have struggled.

He acknowledged Tuesday that last season he played poorly.

"I played like s--- last year," the solid 6-foot-4 defenseman said.

But, he added, he feels that working on his consistency will help play him back onto the U.S. Olympic radar.

"I knew I didn’t play very good last year,” Johnson said. "I knew I had a good enough body of work to obviously be here. I know if I play well that I have a good chance of making it. That probably goes with everybody here. Everyone probably thinks if they play well, they’ll have a good chance to make the team, and that’s probably true."

One of the reasons Johnson is optimistic things will turn his way this season is the dramatic changes within the Avalanche organization, including the hiring of Hall of Fame netminder and Avalanche legend Patrick Roy as head coach.

"Just from talking to Patrick a little bit, I think you’ll see that passion behind the bench like he was as a player,” Johnson said. "He’s a fiery guy. He’s intense. I think that’s the jolt our team needed.

"That fresh blood will be good for us."

One thing is for sure: If Johnson does play his way onto the 2014 team, he will try to take time to smell the roses along the way in Russia after the Vancouver tournament seemed to go by in a blur.

"I don’t think you appreciate it as much when you’re playing," he said. "When it wore off and you got back to your NHL team, you realized how cool it was and what an honor it was to be a part of it. I think if I’m lucky enough to do it this time, you really want to soak it up."

Coaching conundrum

Bylsma, as with all NHL coaches who coach at the Olympics, will find himself wearing a number of hats early in the NHL season. Along with making a game plan for his Pittsburgh Penguins, he will also be watching U.S. Olympic hopefuls and, as the Olympics draw closer, thinking about game plans for Team USA, game plans that might include trying to shut down some of his own NHL players, such as captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

He was asked what advice he would give Ryan Suter before sending him over the boards against Crosby.

"Why would I tell you that right now?" Bylsma said, joking. "I think you’re talking about a familiarity with the players we have on the Pittsburgh Penguins that I’ve coached maybe for three and four and five years. The first thing I thought of is they probably know me better than I know them."

Bylsma conceded that there might be some advantage to having familiarity with Crosby’s game.

"Yes," he said a bit reluctantly. "The answer to that question is yes."