Still questions as Team Canada gets set to face Finland
There's still plenty to figure out as Team Canada enters the tough portion of its Olympic hockey schedule, such as which linemate can spark Sidney Crosby. (PHIL NOBLE/Reuters)
They have done the international equivalent of cruise past a couple of hard-working yet ratty American Hockey League-calibre teams while climbing to Olympic altitude.
And now the real flight plan begins for Team Canada.
Now coach Mike Babcock and general manager Steve Yzerman are about to learn what — and especially who — they are.
A week before the gold medal game, Canada gets its first of a possible four consecutive stern tests Sunday when it meets Finland.
There are seeding implications in the final preliminary-round game, but more importantly there is plenty left to be determined before the Canadians get serious about defending the title they won four years ago in Vancouver.
Like: who can play with Sidney Crosby to get the captain going at a better pace?
Or who is going to be the No. 1 man in net when the games get big?
Or when will the top-line players start producing at a rate similar to defenceman Drew Doughty and Shea Weber as well as forward Jeff Carter?
While not a pre-tournament favourite, Finland is a proven entity in international hockey and has a roster thick enough with NHL players to provide some legit pushback.
“We’re anxious and looking forward to playing a Finnish team that traditionally plays well, and they’re off to a very good start in the tournament,” Yzerman said Saturday, an off-day for the players to rest before the busy run ahead.
“I like a lot of things we’re doing on the ice. With each game it gets more important and a Finnish team will be even a little tougher test for us.”
The Team Canada brass may like what they’ve seen so far, but the truth is they have little clue how this group will stand up to the sterner test.
At best so far they have been workmanlike, passing the assignments of a 3-1 win over Norway and 6-0 shutout of Austria without acing them.
At worst, Babcock’s chronic line-juggling to find some hastily created chemistry has served only to muddle rather than cement the lineup.
Perhaps that will come into focus against the Finns, but it’s an absolute must later in the week when the elimination phase begins.
“I’d say I’m going to put the lineup in tomorrow that gives us the best chance to win tomorrow,” Babcock said of his plan for the Finns. “But if we need to change, that’s why we brought everyone. Let’s face it, right away it’s Game 7. But we have one more game that it isn’t.”
One more game, with much yet to determine. While goaltending is a flashpoint, so too is the Crosby situation. Much like Vancouver, he hasn’t been a standout early with just one assist so far. After four years of maturation, more is expected of him here. Sunday would be a good time to start.
“I’ve got lots of plans, the day is young,” a coy Babcock said when asked about Chris Kunitz’s future on the wing with his Penguins teammate, a match hardly heavenly so far. “We’ll see what happens.
“From a purely statistical point of view you’d say no (Crosby’s line hasn’t produced.) I think they do a lot of good things together. But we’re talking about one line.
“I’m not worried about one line. I’m worried about all the lines.”
Even though it’s preferable to win the group to ensure what in theory is an easier route to the final, the Canadians are unlikely to panic should they fall to Finland.
It is clear that Babcock remembers well the heart-stopping ride of 2010. The unlikely need for a shootout against the Swiss was followed by a huge Roberto Luongo save while on his back to defeat Slovakia followed by the overtime drama vs. the U.S.
“Obviously that’s your goal — you’d like to finish first in the group,” Babcock said. “But last time we were the sixth seed and in the end we won, so there’s lots of paths. If we get better as a team, we’re going to have an opportunity in the end to be successful. But it’s a fine line.”
Though there is enough work to be done, little took place on Saturday other than allowing the players some time to recuperate and soak up the Olympic experience. Crosby and a handful of teammates attended the epic Russia-U.S. tilt and others went to watch fellow Canadians in action.
“The big part of it is the NHL schedule,” Babcock said of the break. “You can just imagine the meetings these guys have had with their own teams preparing for their own games. I just know with my own team, it seemed like we played every single day. It was exhausting.
“Then you come over here and you jam them full of information, you practise them too hard, really. The other thing is everyone needs to breathe.”
Perhaps for the final time.
PRICE OR LUONGO?
Barring a collapse by whoever guards the Canadian net against Finland Sunday, don't expect Mike Babcock to decide on a No. 1 goaltender with a coin flip.
Team Canada's coach made it clear Saturday that the management group came here with a plan to manage the position, one that isn't about to be abandoned after an easy win by Carey Price and then Roberto Luongo over international lightweights.
"I've had lots of time, so we as a management team and a coaching staff, we watched the NHL all year and so then we picked the two goalies that we think have got an opportunity," Babcock said. "We had a plan. We understand, and I said this a number of times, you get one (goalie) change in this tournament and you can still win.
"They've both been real good (and) haven't changed our plans."
Of course Babcock isn't willing to reveal what those plans are, making Sunday's decision a potentially pivotal one. He said he planned to speak with both candidates Saturday night.
Price got the nod in the opener, leading some to speculate he was the guy. But Luongo was sharp in making a number of big saves against Austria in the second game. Ideally, one will emerge as the starter for the duration of the short Olympic tourney.
Meanwhile, it sounds as though the P.K. Subban Olympic experiment will take another twist on Sunday with Dan Hamhuis likely to draw back in. A right-handed shot, Subban is in a battle for ice time with Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, who have been two of Canada's best players in the opening two games.
Those are just some of the decisions that are to be made, a process that is ongoing and at times difficult for the management group.
"(Management) has put a ton of work into selecting the best group to give us the best chance," Babcock said. "Now you get them here and you've got to turn them into a team. Everyone on the management team has an opinion and everyone on the coach staff.
"You talk about it at night and you wake up in the morning and you talk about it again. Believe me, the decisions are not easy.
"But it's not about (the players). It's about our country and making the right decision.
While much has been made of the state of its own goaltending entering the Olympics, on Sunday Team Canada should get its first big test at the other end of the ice.
Of course, that could depend on which Tuukka Rask shows up for Finland.
Rask, who led the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup final last spring, was expected to be the wildcard that could help lead his country to medal contention. But after getting pulled in the team's opening 8-4 win over Austria, Rask sat in Game 2 against Norway.
It is expected Rask will get the start against Canada, in Sunday's preliminary round closer for both teams, a contest that will decide top spot in Group B.
Meanwhile, already bit by injuries prior to the tournament, Finland learned it will be without young centre Alexsander Barkov, who will miss the rest of the Olympics due to a knee injury. That leaves the Finns with only one regular NHLer at centre, Olli Jokinen.