SOCHI, Russia — Whether Canada danced fast, slow or so-so can and will be debated, but these first moves matter far less than how and where Team Canada steps next.
Beating Norway was almost a given for Canada's men's hockey team, but the 3-1 score wasn’t powerful enough for some. While the lust for a more lopsided affair is certainly understandable, the close score isn’t necessarily indicative of Canada being in trouble as it chases gold at the Olympic Games.
Short memories this hockey nation sometimes has, but tight games in the early-going have not been a rarity for Canadian teams. In 2002, Canada lost its opener 5–2 to Sweden, squeaked by Germany 3–2 and then tied the Czech Republic before advancing to the medal round and winning gold.
In 2006, Canada started slow and got worse before fading into a seventh-place finish. In 2010, early struggles, including a loss to the U.S. and being forced to a shootout by Switzerland, were put in the rearview mirror when Sidney Crosby struck gold.
The game and the outcome gave us our first glimpse into who Team Canada is and what it can be. It’s coach Mike Babcock’s job to correctly read the tea leaves. Did Norway’s game plan and execution keep this game close? Was Canada popping its clutch and stalling?
Babcock believes it was a bit of both.
"I thought in the first period we didn’t execute as well as we’d like. I thought we tried hard, didn’t execute… Norway competed like crazy. They made it hard for us. We had lots of opportunity, but them keeping it close, it kept us tight. I thought they did a real good job," said Babcock.
"We probably in the end didn’t have enough traffic and not enough chances… So it’s something we have to get better at. But I thought Norway played real well, and obviously their coach had them well prepared."
Long professional seasons give teams an opportunity to find themselves over months or more, but the Olympics requires immediate evaluation and rapid adjustment. Team Canada is now in the "what do have to fix and how do we fix it?" stage.
Thursday’s game gives Babcock an opportunity to now do his thing. He’s had a look at his group in real action, and he’ll be able to provide the team with video of things he likes and others he’d like changed.
The coaching staff can also evaluate their line combinations and how they employed their roster. Canada now has a diagnosis and it’s up to Babcock to select a prescription.
"I’m always hoping to come out and not let the opposition out of their zone ever, but that’s not hockey. That’s not the Olympic Games," said Babcock. "To be honest with you, I thought it was good for our team to be in a tight game and make it hard. It’s reality."
So what’s next? Jeff Carter and Chris Kunitz failed to impress on Sidney Crosby’s line. Martin St. Louis had a strong game as an extra forward and young Matt Duchene watched from above.
Babcock has options.
"It’s time to get playing so we can figure out what we have, and that’s what we did here today, so we can make improvement tomorrow, just 'cause now we suddenly have video on our own guys, we can talk about our team," said Babcock.
"Once you trust each other and you trust your structure then your skill level comes out, because you’re in the right spots and playing fast. I thought we did a lot of good things tonight, don’t get me wrong, but we can be way better. We understand that, and we’re confident that we’re gonna be."
Now this game can be spun any number of ways and viewed through beer glasses both half full and half empty, but there’s no question Team Canada will have to be better if it is to defend its title.
They need to be sharper offensively, more disciplined and freer-skating. They can’t be looking for one another and thinking about their systems. They need to react and play on instinct.
That’s the whole trick here. Canada has the best group of players. That’s not in question. But whether they can become an instinctual beast remains to be seen.
The winner here won’t take time to measure up its prey, pick a method of capture and then proceed to kill. Gold medals will go to the team that does all of that without blinking or thinking.
Canada has the guns. We just don’t know yet if it’ll figure out how to pull the trigger.