Team Canada still a work in progress
SOCHI, Russia -- If body language means anything, this is as confident and comfortable as I've seen Team Canada look at this stage of the tournament since my first Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.
You may remember that year Canada got crushed by Sweden, edged Germany and tied the Czech Republic in its round-robin portion, prompting executive director Wayne Gretzky to unleash the "rant heard 'round the world," which he would later admit was meant to shield his players from the pressure and scrutiny that was building.
It was a stroke of genius, as Canada went on to win it all, snapping a 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought.Four years later in Torino, Italy, in a round robin that included a loss to Switzerland, an injury-plagued roster never gave you any indication it was ready for something special. And a tepid effort in a quarterfinal loss to Russia underlined it.
Then came Vancouver, and a preliminary round that ended with a 5-3 loss to the upstart Americans, sending the fans of the host nation into complete panic. Head coach Mike Babcock made the gutsy move to replace legend Martin Brodeur in net with Roberto Luongo, and Canada had to play an extra game against Germany before the medal round, but everything fell into place.
And so we now find ourselves looking at this Team Canada squad wondering what to make of it. You'd swear by the reaction back home that this is a team doing nothing right.
Tough sledding indeed when you're talking about a team that's unbeaten in three games. That's something it couldn't do in Salt Lake, Torino or Vancouver in those opening rounds.
Yes, the Canadians have played two hockey minnows in Norway and Austria, and a pesky Finnish squad battling injuries.
The reality is this: Team Canada remains a work in progress, still searching for more cohesiveness offensively but very much satisfied with a defensive game that's clearly been established.
So they're halfway there. And they've mastered the half that the coaching staff cared more about at the outset of the Olympics.
Which, by the way, I wholeheartedly agree with. Building your defensive foundation on the big ice is the paramount, integral staple to having any chance over here.
"I think we have the puck a lot, and I don't think we give up very much," Babcock said Monday after keeping his team off the ice. "I think we're dialed in that way. We also understand we have to get better every single day at this tournament. Even on this off day, we're just having a ride. The guys are watching video. We have to get better today. That's more energy; that's getting ready for tomorrow. If you keep getting better, you have a chance. The team that keeps getting better and becomes the best team has a chance to win at the end."
It's what it did in Salt Lake and Vancouver; it's what it never came close to doing in Torino.Except like Torino, this is big-ice, overseas hockey.
The challenge remains mastering a different, more methodical brand of hockey that's played over here.
Jonathan Toews weighed in on that topic Monday.
"I guess in the NHL, I'd say that one of the differences I see as far as a style of game that I think we've had to change as a team is there's so much dump and chase in the NHL, where to get from A to B, it's not very far and you can have wingers stretch to the far blue line, let them chip it in and go chase after it and try and generate some offense off of getting the puck in deep or rimming the puck around where the goaltender can't get it," he said.
"Here the corners are so far away and so deep that the goalie can usually get behind the net and stop the puck if you're trying to rim it to the far side. Just little examples like that really change the style of game. It's more puck possession. If anything, if you don't have a play you're better to just circle back and keep the puck and wait for everyone to regroup."
The players watched more video Monday. It's being drilled into them what they can do over here with the smaller offensive zones and trapping, patient opposition.
The Canadians play the winner of Tuesday's Switzerland-Latvia qualifier in Wednesday's quarterfinal. And they know exactly what they'll be getting -- the same as what Finland threw at them.
Canada needs to remain patient as well and not force things in that game. It's clear the improvement must come from generating more second chances in the blue paint, finding a way to make more of a living in the middle of the ice and not spend all night to the outside, where Finland pushed Canada's forwards to Sunday night.
"Yeah we're assuming they're just going to sit back in the neutral zone and ... just try to shut us down offensively," said Olympic wunderkind Drew Doughty on Monday. "They're going to look for turnovers and when they get that they're going to use their speed to get up there and create off-man rushes."
Babcock said after his staff broke down the Finland game, it concluded Canada had an 18-5 margin in scoring chances.
But really, aside from Chris Kunitz's glorious chance in the first period, or maybe Jeff Carter's opportunity in the second period or Marc-Edouard Vlasic breakaway late in the third period, the other chances weren't terribly noteworthy.
"I just know it's hard to get scoring chances," said Babcock, who then brought up the fact it would be nice to get the odd power play.
Good point.It is odd that through three games, Canada has generated only four power-play opportunities, the fewest among the 12 teams in the tournament.
"It's amazing," said Babcock. "We have the puck all the time and never get on the power play. That's different here, too. When you have the puck in North America and you dominate the other team in the NHL, you're on the power play at least four or five times a game."
No question given the potency of Canada's star-studded power-play units, that's a factor moving forward.
In the meantime, people back in hockey-crazed Canada want to see more evidence that their team can repeat. On a team with Sidney Crosby, Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and John Tavares down the middle, fans expect more than what they've seen so far, fair or not.
But what I can tell you is that this is not a team showing any signs of doubt whatsoever on the eve of the medal round.
"I think we all kind of forget what people expect," Dougthy said. "When you're around that group we have on that team, we're so confident we can come back and win no matter what. Even though it was 1-1 going into OT [in Sunday's 2-1 win over Finland], I had all the confidence in the world we were going to come through in that game. It's the same way if we're going to be down a goal late in the third period, we expect to tie that game up. Everyone is confident in that dressing room."