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Thursday, February 13, 2014
Canada's slow start is nothing new

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- Team Canada's opening games at the Olympics are rarely pieces of art.

Think back to 2002 when Canada got crushed by Sweden, barely beat Germany and tied the Czech Republic before raising its game just in time when it mattered most.

Ditto in 2010 with a shootout win over Switzerland and a loss to the United States that forced a qualifying-round game versus Germany before Team Canada got rolling with a rout of Russia in the quarterfinals.

In 2006, well, Canada just never got going, period.

Regardless of the ending, the Canadians are usually slow starters because no other country in this tournament rotates so many players every Olympics. The ridiculous depth of talent to choose from is a double-edged sword because it also means some players who have never played together have to learn to work together.

And quickly.

That's why opening with games against Norway on Thursday and Austria on Friday is the perfect tuneup for a powerhouse country that always needs a little time to find its sea legs.

"We got better as it went on tonight," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said after a 3-1 win over Norway. "Anytime you're playing with a new group, there's going to be a feeling-out period. We only had a few practices. But I thought we got better as the game went on. We got our legs underneath us. It can only get better from here."

It got better after a mediocre, scoreless opening period. Canada looked disjointed in the first 20 minutes, passes were not connecting, and players very much looked like they just met at the neighborhood rink for a pickup game.

It was the Olympic opener, so maybe there were a little nerves?

"I think, you know, you're playing your first game and everyone's probably thinking about where they need to be and systems -- probably a thousand things going through their minds," said captain Sidney Crosby, who looked sharp. "I think just once we settled in and realized how we play and how we need to play, we started to get some good results."

Lars Haugen and Sidney Crosby
After a sluggish first period, Sidney Crosby and Canada started to click together.

The second period brought a totally different squad. In the middle of the period the shots were 12-0 as Canada tilted the ice on the Norwegians.

"We possessed the puck a lot," Crosby said. "We have big bodies who can hold on to the puck and play with a lot of speed. When they did get it out, they didn't have a lot of energy because we were down there. The game's much more fun when you're playing it that way and have them on their heels and they're not able to create a lot because you're playing in their zone. We're going to have a lot of success if we play like that."

What I liked in particular was Canada's blue-line corps activating aggressively and keeping the puck in the Norwegian zone, pinching numerous times in order to allow the cycle game to continue.

"Trying to keep pucks alive and stay in the offensive zone as much as you can," said alternate captain Shea Weber, who opened the scoring with a trademark blast. "Nobody likes to play in their own end. You're going to be more successful if you're in the offensive zone."

No better play underlined Canada's defense corps pressuring offensively than Drew Doughty dancing in from the point and scoring a beauty on a backhand after a few dekes to navigate through the slot.

But it wasn't just that gorgeous goal. For the final two periods, Canada's defense kept pucks alive and in the offensive zone, suffocating Norway's ability to transition out.

Which is the plan for this tournament.

"Of course, coach [Mike] Babcock continued to tell us we need to have the fastest team in the tournament, we need to be jumping in the D-zone getting it out for our forwards, and when we're in the offensive zone, we need to be active and getting shots through," said Doughty, who picked up right where he left off after a brilliant 2010 tournament. "And we don't have a lot of time out there with the compressed offensive zone, so we're going to have to find ways around that, but I thought we did a good job tonight."

The best part for the defending Olympic champions? They play right away Friday versus Austria. These guys are tired of practicing. You don't form chemistry that way. You need real game adversity to progress.

"It's good," Crosby said of playing back-to-back days to open the tournament. "We got more familiar with things and more comfortable once the game went along. The fact that we can get back out there, everything's fresh and we can build off things that we have to improve on. I think it's really good."

Added Pietrangelo: "You get used to the feel of the game. We're feeling good and confident after this game, but it's nice to turn around right away and fix some things that didn't go well tonight."

Another 60 minutes versus a hockey minnow -- no offense to Austria -- will allow the Canadians to ramp up that rhythm it clearly started to gain Thursday night after a slow start.

"We have to trust our instincts," alternate captain Jonathan Toews said. "We just have to have patience and have confidence with the puck.

"It was fun. You could see us loosen up as the game went on. It was fun to be out there as a team and get our first win. We're just going to keep getting better."

That's usually the case. Just not always.