SOCHI, RUSSIA - There will be no Golden Goal on Thursday and, frankly, no real need for much offence at all from the latest superstar edition of Team Canada.
But four years after Sidney Crosby made the gold-medal game in Vancouver one of the most memorable in Canadian hockey history, the road to repeat is about to begin.
The new chapter starts Thursday against Norway, about as soft a landing as coach Mike Babcock’s squad could ask for heading into the rapid-fire Olympic tournament.
Don’t expect a hungry bunch of Canadian snipers to show any mercy to their overmatched opponents in Game 1. Nor will they let up against another soft squad, Austria, the following night.
“I don’t think you ever want to take the foot off the gas,” Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. “We don’t want to embarrass teams or anything, but at the same time, the goal differential (for tie-breaking purposes) is huge.
“We need to be putting pucks to the net and we’ve got to be keeping them out of ours. We’re not going to take the foot off the pedal, we’re just going to keep going.”
While a strong start isn’t crucial in pool play, it can’t hurt either. And with the Canadian team anxious to shed its perceived inability to win the Olympic tournament on the larger international ice surface, expect Crosby and company to come out flying.
After naming Carey Price his starting goaltender and indicating that another Hab, P.K. Subban, will likely sit for the opener, Babcock sounded like a thoroughbred trainer ready to open the barn door.
“Our players probably didn’t want to listen to me today, they probably wanted to play today, to be honest with you,” Babcock said following a brisk 55-minute practice. “Let’s get playing. Let’s find out if we’re any good.”
It will be two games in 24 hours, albeit against weak opponents. At least the Canadians will get a chance to adapt to the time zone and the vast ice surface without the challenge of a true contender.
It will be the second consecutive Olympics that the Canadians have met Norway in a preliminary-round contest following an 8-0 thrashing in Vancouver. All told, Canada has outscored Norway 37-3 in four Olympic meetings.
The players believe the best way to get up to cruising altitude is when the puck drops for real.
“It’s time for us to go play and stop talking about everything,” Jonathan Toews, captain of the reigning Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, said following Wednesday’s practice. “Just show what we can do — for each other and for the world watching.
“We’ve gone through a lot of technical and our systems stuff the last few days and I think we’re just excited to make it work and go out there and play. We know we will get better and better as the tournament goes on.”
With just three practices — and one of those the night they flew from North America — there hasn’t been time to accomplish a great deal, though not because of a lack of effort on Babcock’s part.
Wednesday’s training session appeared scripted down to the minute with an emphasis on breakout plays and special teams, both five-on-four and five-on-three. It also appeared as though the coaching staff was working on getting more use of the international-sized playing surface. Canada, as you can expect to hear on a near-continuous loop over the next 11 days, has not won Olympic gold outside North America in more than six decades (1952 in Oslo).
Babcock is stressing getting the puck away from the boards, where shots have far less chance for success than they do in NHL rinks.
“I’ve seen some organizational improvements,” Babcock said. “I don’t know if you know, these players are pretty good. The puck sails around pretty good.
“Our game plan is really simple: We’ve got to get everyone so they don’t think. We don’t want players thinking, we want them playing.”
It certainly appeared to be a loose bunch of Canadians at practice Wednesday and one anxious to set the stage for the next golden goal.
“This time, I think we know that pressure is there, but we’re a little bit more loose, a little bit more talkative, a little bit more energetic in the room,” Toews said. “We can just go out there and try to upset the Russians if we have the chance. That home-soil pressure is on them this time.”
NO SHORTAGE OF ASSISTANTS
Mike Babcock was patrolling the Olympic practice rink like an old USSR drill officer Wednesday.
Barking orders and going through a wide array of drills, he had no shortage of assistants to help ensure the incredibly talented group of Canadian players were kept in line.
It’s clear the Detroit Red Wings/Team Canada coach is big on delegating as Ken Hitchcock (St. Louis), Lindy Ruff (Dallas), Claude Julien (Boston) and Ralph Krueger all have well-defined roles.
“Hitch and Ralph Krueger are responsible for the pre-scouts, Lindy runs the D and does the power-play, Claude Julien’s running our penalty kill and he’s standing next to me sharing information on the bench,” Babcock said. “The whole thing is, everybody’s involved in anything.
“We have big debates, lots of fun and lots of laughs. We try to get better by learning from each other.”
Babcock’s success in Detroit is well-documented, and so far the players here have the utmost respect for him.
“I love him as a coach,” Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. “He really gets to the point with things. He expects a lot out of us.”