Big ice, big test: Team Canada's cast of superstar forwards spinning their wheels in Sochi

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

SOCHI, Russia — The game went to overtime, and this was the scenario: If the Canadians lost, they would play Russia or Norway in the quarterfinals of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament. If they won, they would play Switzerland or Latvia.

So when Drew Doughty scored 2:32 into OT on Sunday night – his second goal of the game and fourth in three games – he didn’t just beat Finland, 2-1. He probably kept Canada from facing Russia in Russia when the loser wouldn’t even get a shot at bronze.

Big goal. Big deal.

But wait. Big ice.

If the Canadians face the Swiss in the quarters, they will face the same challenge they did against the Finns – a defensive chess match on the sprawling international sheet; a game in which possession won’t necessarily turn into shots, let alone goals; a style that could neutralize their tremendous talent and leave nails bitten to the nubs from Victoria to St. John’s. The Canadians will have to adjust to generate offense.

Look at what the Swiss have done in Sochi: They beat Latvia, 1-0. They lost to Sweden, 1-0, when goalie Jonas Hiller was on the bench and his backup let a rebound fall into the crease for Daniel Alfredsson to slap in late in the third. They beat the Czech Republic, 1-0. Despite scoring only two goals, they won two games with stifling defense and Hiller shutouts.

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The Canadians won gold on home ice four years ago in Vancouver but needed a four-round shootout to beat Switzerland in the prelims, 3-2. And remember what happened eight years ago in Torino, the last time the Canadians played in an Olympics on big ice? They had trouble scoring. They lost to Finland and Switzerland in the preliminary round and Russia in the quarters – all by 2-0 scores.

That Swiss team was coached by a Canadian named Ralph Krueger. He is an advisor to the Canadian coaching staff this time, and he was brought on board specifically because of his international experience. He has briefed Mike Babcock and Co. on tactics. He has studied the systems of opponents. He has stressed staying off the perimeter and playing between the dots in the offensive zone – and still Canada has struggled to do that.

The Canadians have so much talent they don’t know what to do with it, especially up front. The big story has been the lineup. But it doesn’t matter how many talented forwards you have, how the lines look, or how much you have the puck if the forwards are along the boards far from the net and don’t get inside enough.

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Canada’s first prelim was against Norway, a team that collapsed in front. Canada won, 3-1. Two goals were from defensemen. Canada’s second prelim was against Austria, a team that tried to push it. Canada won, 6-0. Two goals were from defensemen. Canada’s third prelim was against Finland, another team that collapsed in front. Again, two goals were from defensemen – a defenseman, rather, Doughty.

A team with Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Jeff Carter, Jamie Benn, Matt Duchene and Martin St. Louis has 11 goals in three games.

And less than half have come from the forwards.

“It’s the nature of the game, this international game,” Duchene said. “This is why the NHL should never go to big ice. It’ll take the scoring out of the game. You’re able to play way more defensive on the big ice. It makes for less offense. You’ve seen no offense almost the entire tournament. It’s either been a blowout or a real close game.”

True. So what is Canada going to do about it? Too often against Finland, the Canadians kept the puck in the offensive end but couldn’t generate a shot, let alone a Grade A scoring chance, let alone a goal.

“When you put a whole bunch of skilled players together, your tendency is to be on the outside and have the puck, and you think you’re doing something,” Babcock said. “And you are. You’re hanging onto the puck, and you’re hanging onto the puck, and you’re hanging onto the puck, but nothing’s going on.”

He twirled his finger in a circle.

“You have to get these lessons, and that’s what people don’t understand,” Babcock said. “You’ve got to come here, you’ve got to compete, and each team is different and each game is different. And this Olympics is way different than the last Olympics.

“You’ve got to find a way to play within the rules of this game and the size of the sheet and figure out a way to play and have success. I mean, scoring isn’t easy, and so we’ve got to find a way to be better in that area.”

Babcock said they probably had to play simpler – throw more pucks at the net, generate rebounds and bury them.

“To me,” Babcock said, “you’ve got to put your work in front of your skill and get to work.”

This is going to be a grind.

If the Canadians can get past Switzerland, the United States might be waiting in the semis. That means a North American style. But the Americans beat the Canadians in the preliminary round in Vancouver and took them to OT in the final, and they have looked excellent in this tournament. If the Canadians make the final, Finland, Sweden or Russia could be waiting – in other words, a team they just needed OT to beat, the last team to win gold on big ice, and the home team.

“We came here to be tested, not not to be tested,” Babcock said. “To win an Olympic gold medal, you should have to battle incredibly hard to make that happen.”

The test is about to begin.

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