The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Posted: 02/14/2014 1:20 PM | Comments: 0
Last Modified: 02/14/2014 4:06 PM
SOCHI, Russia - A win over Austria isn't going to mean much by the end of the Olympic hockey tournament, regardless of whether Team Canada defends its gold medal or misses the podium altogether.
Still, coach Mike Babcock and his players could see building blocks forming in the 6-0 win on Friday night at Bolshoy Ice Dome. As expected, Canada was a more cohesive, comfortable bunch in its second game of the tournament.
"We were nervous (Thursday) night at the start and I thought we got better," Babcock said. "I think we were better tonight than we were. I thought we moved the puck better. I thought we skated better."
Jeff Carter, who led the way with a natural hat trick in the second period, called it a "step in the right direction." At this stage, that's all Canada can glean from convincing wins against Norway and Austria.
There can be no grand proclamations made from these two games, there's no certainty whether Roberto Luongo (23 saves) or Carey Price will start Sunday against Finland, and this team is far from a finished product.
As Babcock likes to say, it's a "work in progress."
But in putting the pieces together before it turns into a one-game elimination event, Canada looks like a team that is on the right track.
"I think today your saw our team's evolution continue to progress period by period," forward Patrice Bergeron said. "I think it's what we want right now."
Captain Sidney Crosby called it the continuation of what he and his teammates were able to do in the second and third periods against Norway, when they hemmed a weaker opponent in its zone and wore it down as a result.
"We played with a lot of speed," Crosby said. "We got some success playing like that."
That's the key to how Canada wants to play. Forward John Tavares knows these kind of lopsided results won't continue when facing fellow contenders, but execution of this strategy should mean good things.
"When we push the pace, we make it tough for other teams to defend," Tavares said. "And when they got to defend us, they wear down and we're able to create more and more opportunities and you can see that by the third period we really controlled the puck a lot."
Against Austria, Canada predictably controlled the puck and the pace of the game. The odd-man rushes against, and therefore pressure on Luongo, decreased as time went on, and offence followed in the form of goals from Carter, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Ryan Getzlaf.
And though goal differential is the first seeding tiebreaker moving forward and it has value, the Canadians aren't measuring themselves on 6-0, or on 3-1 against Norway. This is about doing the right things and developing the right habits.
"I'm just looking for details," Babcock said. "Who can I trust, and who can you not, and how are we going to win the games as they get harder? And this tournament it gets harder and harder, as you know. It's a detail tournament, it's a one-goal game, every single time, so it's going to be about playing well without the puck."
It's hard to tell how Canada is developing as a team without the puck because it had it so much through the first two games. Obviously, Carter said, that's not a bad thing.
"I think when you're creating turnovers, you're skating, you're on the puck, you're forechecking and backchecking, whatever it is — when everybody is doing that, it's a good sign," said Carter, who had Canada's first natural hat trick at the Olympics since Paul Knox in 1956 against Austria. "You're going to create off it."
Canada created plenty, making it a long and then a shorter night for Austrian goaltender Bernhard Starkbaum, who allowed six goals on 31 shots before getting pulled after two periods. There wasn't much he could do most of the time against a powerful offensive opponent.
Armed with so much talent and knowing that Austria was overmatched, Canada's players were consciously thinking about the process, about building toward something. Defenceman Duncan Keith thinks each of the six periods was better than the next, though Getzlaf knows there are still mistakes that need to be eliminated.
"We've been to a lot of these events, and we know it's a progression throughout this whole thing," Getzlaf said. "That's the biggest emphasis that we have to focus on is that we've got to get better as the tournament goes on."
This game fit almost perfectly into that progression. Babcock expected Norway to be a more difficult challenge because of the emotional charge that comes with the first game of the Olympics and seemed to see more production against Norway because Canada's depth was bound to be overwhelming.
His players then got the job done.
"We saw that we were more relaxed, this is why we created more offensive chances," centre Jonathan Toews said in French. "We were relaxed and patient with the puck, especially on shots coming from the blue-line. We were able to get second chances on those. Our team play was much stronger, and we saw the result on the scoreboard."
Keith emphasized the "team play" portion when addressing how Canada improved from its first game to its second.
"We did a lot of good things with the puck, especially offensively, holding pucks and being smart with it," Keith said. "We controlled a lot of the play and our forwards obviously showed a lot of size and skill down low to hang on to pucks and have that possession time."
In possessing the puck, Canada managed to find more offence than it did against Norway. And while players weren't so worried about the score, winning by six and now having a plus-8 goal differential could help as the seeding shakes out.
"People know how important every goal is in this tournament, too, so you can't let your foot off the gas," Tavares said.
Canada can reduce the importance of goal differential by simply beating Finland on Sunday, which would mean it finishes atop Group B and gets a bye into the quarter-finals. The loser would be in competition with several teams, including either Russia or the United States, for the fourth and final bye to avoid playing one extra game.
Before facing Finland, Canada's players get a day off Saturday and Babcock gets time to ponder more roster decisions and iron out what's not working. What sounds like nit-picking a 2-0 team is actually a necessary part of the Olympics: The power play hasn't been effective through two games, and against Austria there were still noticeable wrinkles.
"I think there were a few moments where we were trying to force pucks into the middle and they were feeding off that," Toews said. "They had forwards who were swinging and keying off our turnovers. A couple of times we made dangerous plays and ended up giving up chances."
Those are the types of things that cannot continue.
"We can be way better," Babcock said. "We understand that."
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