The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Posted: 02/13/2014 1:14 PM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 02/13/2014 3:48 PM
SOCHI, Russia - Several minutes after Norway took the ice for its pre-game warm-up on Thursday, pucks still hadn't arrived. Players skated or just stood around waiting.
It turned out to be a preview of the second period, when Team Canada found its groove after a slow start and simply dominated the Norwegians on the way to a 3-1 victory in its opening game of the Olympic men's hockey tournament.
It was a stark contrast from Canada's scoreless, sluggish first period, which players attributed to nerves more than any technical adjustments.
Mentally, though, it was like a switch got flipped.
"You're playing your first game and everyone's probably thinking about where they need to be and systems — probably a thousand things going through their minds," captain Sidney Crosby said. "I think just once we settled in and realized how we play and how we need to play, we started to get some good results."
Canada, which got goals from Shea Weber and Jamie Benn during the second and one from Drew Doughty later to provide insurance, was tenuous at best and sloppy at worst early on. Being unsure of the big ice, of new teammates, of unfamiliar opponents, led to pucks hopping over sticks and players going offside at inopportune times.
Getting quality shots wasn't possible because the puck wasn't getting into prime scoring areas.
"I thought in the first period we didn't execute as well as we'd like," coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought we tried hard, didn't execute."
Babcock-coached teams are all about detail-oriented execution. When that was lacking, Norway was able to use tight, five-man units to frustrate the Canadians and keep them off the scoreboard.
Some of the credit has to go to Norway, but the proof of Canada's control over this game came almost immediately after the first intermission. Suddenly the puck was only in the offensive zone, and it looked like the NHL stars were toying with inferior competition.
"We probably calmed down, played our game a little more, kept pucks in, hunted really good, put pucks on net and went there — found rebounds, second chances and really controlled the puck, controlled the pace," winger Chris Kunitz said.
That was more of Canada's "brand of hockey," in the eyes of forward Patrick Sharp. During the first two minutes the talent discrepancy was evident, like when Jonathan Toews blew by the Norwegian defence to get to a loose puck and when Crosby had no trouble winning a puck battle to set up a scoring chance.
But it took until the second period to really play out.
"Any time you're playing with a new group, there's going to be a little bit of a feeling-out period there," said defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who had Canada's first shot of the game. "I think we got a lot better as the game went along. I thought we got our legs underneath us."
Once those legs got moving, Norway could only try to hang on. Norwegian defenceman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen said "Canada took it to another level" — and that's a level that was impossible for a team with one NHL player to reach.
Crosby and other players didn't quite pinpoint how that happened, figuring instead that it was part of an expected gradual progression following only a few days of practice.
Babcock emphasized that he wanted to prepare his players not to think and just play. That didn't happen right away.
"When you're starting to think about stuff your first game, everyone's worried about where they need to be," Crosby said. "And when you're thinking out there, you're probably not moving as much. We just got to playing hockey in the second half."
When this group plays hockey like it did in that second period, it's capable of beating anyone in this tournament. Canada outshot Norway 14-2 over those 20 minutes, getting goals from Weber at the 6:20 mark and Benn at 15:19 to ease some nerves at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Strong play from Norwegian goaltender Lars Haugen, who made 35 saves on 38 shots in his first game since Dec. 8 because of a lower-body injury, was a huge reason Canada didn't make this a more lopsided result. Babcock thought his team could have helped itself more.
"We probably in the end didn't have enough traffic and not enough chances," Babcock said. "We felt we had 24 chances tonight, and didn't have seconds. So it's something we have to get better at."
There were other hiccups, like the puck-handling mishap by goaltender Carey Price that led to Norway's only goal by Patrick Thoresen 22 seconds into the third. Set up by Mathis Olimb taking the puck away from Price, it was Norway's first goal against Canada at the Olympics since 1984.
Call it the downside of a dominant second period because Price could have taken a nap at the other end of the ice as Canada wore Norway out.
"I think I only touched the puck for one handle in that whole period," said Price, who made 19 saves on 20 shots to pick up the win in his Olympic debut. "So you just try to stay in it."
Thankfully for Canada, Doughty dangled through Norway's defence and scored on a pretty back-hander 1:35 later. That kept Canada from being one mistake away from a tie and some unnecessary stress, but there was never any point Thursday night that it was in danger of losing.
"We possessed the puck a lot," Crosby said. "We have big bodies who can hold onto the puck and play with a lot of speed. When they did get it out they didn't have a lot of energy because we were down there. The game's much more fun when you're playing it that way and have them on their heels and they're not able to create a lot because you're playing in their zone."
But this wasn't the blowout most expected, especially after an 8-0 drubbing four years ago in Vancouver. A two-goal win won't help much in the goal-differential category, which is the first tiebreaker for seeding, especially after the United States won by six, Finland four and Russia three.
Still, Babcock didn't mind that this one was close because down the road it could help.
"I thought it was good for our team to be in a tight game and make it hard," Babcock said. "It's reality."
With Babcock saying there's "lots to work on," it's to Canada's advantage that reality also means turning right around to play Friday against Austria. Crosby hopes that the progression of the Norway game can continue.
"We got more familiar with things and more comfortable once the game went along," he said. "The fact that we can get back out there, everything's fresh and we can build off things that we have to improve on."
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