Canucks set to go

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Long-range plans are always in place at the beginning of a tournament, but there is no guarantee they'll work.

So far, Team Canada is evolving in just the manner the organizers had hoped. Up to now, the blueprint has proven to be accurate.

Everyone is getting along.

The enthusiasm is in place.

And on the ice, the team is improving steadily.

The idea was to start in familiar territory, both geographically and in terms of opposition. So the first two games were played in Canada against the Americans.

Then came the move to Europe to allow a gradual adjustment to the time change, the larger surface and the international rules.

The first game in Latvia was what it should have been -- a decent challenge. The game in Prague also lived up to expectations.

It was a spirited, high-speed affair in front of a hostile crowd against a team looking to avenge a loss to Canada in the World Cup semi-final.

Even though it was only an exhibition game, it was treated as a serious test on the eve of the tournament and was as good an exhibition game as is likely to be seen.

So now, after winning three of four in the warmup, Canada is ready to move on to the real competition, the world championship, which opens today with a game against Latvia.

Coach Marc Habscheid is more than pleased with the way the team has come together. When he talks about his players, he positively bubbles.

"These guys have been great," he said. "They work hard, they're focused. They pay attention to details. We're getting better every game. I think we're evolving and getting there.

"They are good guys. They're really good guys. They are excited to be here. In meetings, they're really attentive, they're businesslike. They enjoy playing.

"Really, it's fun for me to see that. They love being at the rink. They love talking hockey. It makes my job easy. It makes it real easy because they're all here for the right reasons. They all want to do the right thing."

They also are starting to feel comfortable.

In the game against the Czechs, the Canadians started firing long passes up the rink, taking advantage of the fact the red line is not a factor in offside calls.

"We're starting to get used to it," said forward Simon Gagne, the target of a couple of those passes. "Myself and maybe 15 other guys on the team didn't play this year and we haven't played that type of hockey so we needed to get into it.

"But now, the defencemen and forwards are starting to get used to it. It was a fun game."

The other good news is that the exhibition schedule allowed the Canadians to get two goalies ready.

In the World Cup, Martin Brodeur suffered a hand injury and Roberto Luongo had to fill in. Just in case a similar setback occurs, Habscheid let Luongo work the entire game on Thursday.

And Luongo was excellent.

"I was really working on my game in the off-season," Luongo said after Thursdays's game. "So it was really a chance for me to see where I was at. In Quebec (the exhibition loss) I hadn't played for a while, and I came in for half a game and it was an awkward situation. Tonight I had a chance to play the whole game and things went pretty well."

Even though Canada's best forward so far, Joe Thornton, played the season in Switzerland, he had to crank up his game for the Czechs.

"It was the toughest game I've played in a long time," he said.

"To play a game like this is great. Everybody is going to be ready after this. Everybody's timing is going to be great now. It was a really good prep for us for this tournament and something that we needed at this time."

Right on schedule.


Videos

Photos