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Sunday, February 16, 2014
Canada getting tested on big ice

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- It wasn't quite Wayne Gretzky in Salt Lake City ranting about the world wanting Canada to lose, but Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock was at his crankiest Sunday night in a postgame news conference. He reminded people how hard this Olympic tournament is to win, especially on this side of the ocean, where it's a different game on the big ice.

"You know, it's interesting," Babcock began, after yours truly simply asked the coach where he felt his team's game was after wrapping up the preliminary round. "Every time I've come to Europe and coached a team, whether it be in '97, the world junior, or '04, the world championship, or this time, is no one ever seems to be happy with us. And I think we're competing like crazy, so I'm way happier than people that are sitting 200 feet away.

"It's a hard game. The European game is interesting; it's all about defense, the end zone is smaller ... they get out on your D so quick, the dynamic D we have don't get to shoot any pucks; they play man on man and they're on you like glue, and it's hard, and you have to be committed to doing it. And the other things that happens for the NHL player, and probably for you in the media, is the respect you have for the opposition -- you say, well he doesn't play in the NHL. They're playing for their country, and they play hard. And they make it hard on you. So we've just got to keep getting better."

And Babcock is right with every single thing he said.

Fact is, Canada is in a good spot after wrapping up its preliminary round with a 2-1 overtime win over Finland, unbeaten and playing about as sound a defensive game as anyone here.

The defending Olympic champs have allowed only two goals in three games, and they absolutely suffocated the Finns on Sunday night.

The coaching staff was most preoccupied with the defensive game when they got here, hoping to build from the back out and believing, if they can defend as well as possible, the rest will come.

The other shoe has not dropped quite yet, as Canada is still looking to improve the offensive quality of its game; Sunday night's game was largely won on the back of one forward line: Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews and Jeff Carter.

Otherwise, it's still a work in progress on the other units, which were shuffled again in this game.

But against its toughest opposition yet in a very good Finnish squad, Canada played too much on the outside and didn't penetrate the slot enough nor generate enough second chances.

It was a battle Sunday night to find space in the middle.

"Yeah, it's incredibly hard," said Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene, playing on a line with Anaheim stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. "It's been hard this whole tournament. Pucks are bouncing, the ice is not great. There's so much ice out there it's hard to get in the middle. But we got to keep working and keep getting there."

I suspect you'll see work in practice over the next few days specifically addressing that.

"I think when you put a whole bunch of skilled players together, you have a tendency to be on the outside and having the puck and you think you're doing something," Babcock said. "You are, you're hanging on to the puck and you're hanging on to the puck and you're hanging on to the puck, but nothing's going on. You have to get these lessons, and that's what people don't understand. You've got to come here and compete and each team is different and each game is different and this Olympics is different from the last one. You've got to find a way to play within the rules of this game and the size of the sheet and figure out a way to play and have success. Scoring isn't easy."

What some of Canada's NHL All-Stars are figuring out is that the European game on bigger ice is a different beast.

"This is why the NHL should never go to a big ice, it'll take the scoring out of the game," Duchene said. "You're able to play way more defensive on the big ice. It makes for less offense. You've seen no offense almost the whole tournament. It's either been a blowout or a real close game. That's been the nature of it."

Well thank goodness for Drew Doughty, then. He's certainly figured out this whole bigger-ice thing now for two games in a row, looking absolutely poised and confident on the Olympic stage. The Los Angeles Kings blueliner scored twice Sunday, including the OT winner, giving him four goals in the tournament.

"I don't know what's going on. I don't score like this in L.A. at all," Doughty said. "A lot of it is just my teammates -- they're doing a great job of getting me the puck. When you play with these high-skilled forwards, all you've got to do is find some room on the ice and they're going to find you, so -- just trying to get my shots through and on the net."

And it's not just Doughty. Shea Weber had another strong game, and the Blues' duo of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo has been rock steady.

Canada has found balance, stability and production from its back end, which bodes well.

Now if the other part of the equation comes around up front, they'll be in business again.

On that front, while no doubt Canadian fans were disappointed that going to overtime cost Canada the No. 1 seed in the tournament, and more importantly a lollipop quarterfinal against either Slovenia or Austria, I would argue exactly the opposite is true.

Having to face either Switzerland or Latvia -- a much tougher test, especially if the Swiss win as expected -- will actually push Canada in its learning curve ahead of the semifinals. Of course, the Canadians have to win their quarterfinal.

Plus, if Canada had played patsies in three of its four opening games would it be ready to play a possible semifinal game with the United States?

If it is the Swiss in the quarters, that's going to be real hard test and Canada will grow from it if victorious.