Calm down, Canada: Hockey team promising better
AP Sports Writer
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Calm down, Canada.
Take a day to collect your nerves. Stop analyzing and overanalyzing. It’s OK to debate line combinations – especially who should be playing right wing on Sidney Crosby’s line – but it’s too early in the Olympic hockey tournament for all this woe-is-Canada talk.
That was the message the Canadian Olympic team in effect sent to its close-to-hysterical homeland after escaping with a 3-2 victory Thursday over Switzerland, the same country that doomed Canada in 2006 to one of its most excruciating losses since it invented the sport.
Sure, it probably shouldn’t have taken a Crosby shootout goal to decide it, not after Canada eased to an early 2-0 lead. And the fact it happened on home ice – Vancouver, for goodness sakes, not some faraway outpost like Turin – is creating considerable angst as the United States (2-0) awaits on Sunday.
Lose, and Canada might have to journey through a play-in game to reach the quarterfinals of a tournament it is supposed to win.
“It’s a great lesson for our team in how hard it’s going to be,” coach Mike Babcock said. “I think we’re going to be a lot better because of what we went through.”
The Canadian players are very aware of their fans’ raw nerves and could-it-be-happening-all-over again anxiety created by a seventh-place finish in 2006.
To ease that tension, they caution it was a single game early in a tournament in which linemates are getting accustomed to each other, players are putting aside NHL systems to play Babcock’s and, until Friday, no one had time to take a deep breath since the NHL shut down and the Olympics began.
Jarome Iginla, one of the key members of the 2002 team that won in Salt Lake City and a repeater from 2006, said close games can be good for a team early in a tournament. In 2002, he recalled, an opening-game 5-2 loss to Sweden sent a get-to-work message that allowed Canada to rally and win the gold.
“There is work to be done and this can be good for us,” Iginla said. “We have been in close games before. … It can definitely be good for you. I think it is good for you.”
At least nobody is calling this team “dopey,” as coach Pat Quinn did following the Swiss loss in 2006.
According to Babcock, pressure either motivates a player or consumes him. Obviously, he’s hoping this proves to be motivational and not a strain on confidence.
“Good thing I have two days to figure all that out,” Babcock said of all of the issues confronting the team that is younger and supposedly superior to that 2006 team.
Canada didn’t practice Friday, but likely will use Saturday’s session to focus on controlling the puck better – puck management is one of Babcock’s catch phrases – and to be more aggressive yet smarter.
“We can get better, and that’s what this tournament is all about,” captain Scott Niedermayer said.
That and a gold medal, of course.
Babcock wants more physicality but, when defenseman Chris Pronger tried providing that by driving smallish forward Andres Ambuhl in the boards away from the puck, Switzerland took advantage of the vacated territory to score.
The U.S. team, like Switzerland’s, is smaller than Canada’s but more skilled offensively and much more likely to exploit deficiencies. The Americans also will be playing virtually pressure free, exactly the opposite of the Canadians.
Before Sunday, Canada also must sort out who will play on the Rick Nash-Crosby line.
Iginla scored three goals there during an 8-0 rout of Norway, but Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews also got tryouts against Switzerland. It is a major unsettled issue because Babcock was counting on the Crosby line to be a major points producer.
“I didn’t think they were good,” Babcock said of the numerous switching on the Crosby line.
Babcock liked goalie Martin Brodeur, who will make a second successive start Sunday.
“I thought he was terrific,” Babcock said.
Babcock is certain he also had the right man in the shootout as Crosby, denied a first time, converted on his second opportunity to win it. In 1998, Wayne Gretzky never got off the bench in the shootout during an Olympic loss to the Czech Republic that still angers Canadians because they felt the Great One should have shot.
As for this Olympic team, Canada isn’t angry – yet. No, just nervous. Very nervous.
“The gold-medal game isn’t tomorrow, and that’s the good news,” Crosby said.
No, but it’s next weekend, and that could create a very unsettling week for an entire country. Might be a good week for antacid sales in the Great White North.
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