Men's hockey: Just the anti-climax Mike Babcock wanted -

Men’s hockey: Just the anti-climax Mike Babcock wanted

The Canadian men’s hockey coach wanted a tough opener, and Norway—improbably—supplied it

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Thirty-eight shots and long stretches of offensive-zone domination should probably—nay certainly—yield more than three goals when you’ve got Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and John Tavares, among many others, in your lineup.

So “underwhelming” is a label that Mike Babcock, coach of the Canadian men’s hockey team, might have reasonably applied to his squad’s Sochi debut—a 3-1 win against a surprisingly resilient and physical Norwegian team.

Heaven knows that was the verdict of 10,000-odd fans who arrived at the Bolshoy Ice Dome expecting either an Old Testament thrashing, or perhaps a monumental upset. As one maple-leaf bedecked spectator was overheard saying on his way out of the building: “Well that wasn’t much.”

But wait. What was that expression on Babcock’s chiseled face? Nah, it couldn’t be. Was that a look of satisfaction?

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. It was satisfaction.

“I thought it was good for our team to be in a tight game,” shrugged Babcock, with the innocence of Christopher Robin. “You don’t have success here without getting better each and every game. We’ve got lots to work on.”

Babcock sat back, and sipped from his water bottle.

“What I like about tonight’s game for us was that it was hard,” he went on. “We had enough chances for the score to be different. But so what? We didn’t score. Our power-play wasn’t dangerous and in the end, we even gave up a goal on the penalty kill. So”— [once more with feeling]—”we’ve got lots to work on.”

Not, in short, the response you expect in a tournament in which goal differential can determine playoff seeding. Surely, a team with more than $100-million worth of annual NHL salary on its roster can’t be thrilled with a two-goal margin over the Norwegians, ranked second to last among teams that qualified for the 2014 Winter Games.

But the origin of Babcock’s posture is easy to trace, and it’s not his well-known affinity for work. It is a game Canada played four years ago against Norway, which began much as this one did but ended much differently. It too was an Olympic tournament opener for Canada. It too featured a scoreless first period in which Canada’s star-studded team appeared stricken (“puckered up,” in Babcock’s inimitable parlance).

Crosby broke the dam at 2:36 of the second that night and Canada wound up pounding the poor Scandinavians 8-0—to the delight of the Vancouver crowd. But a couple of days later, over a glass of wine at a popular resto, Babcock sounded distinctly unimpressed. The fat margin of victory papered over a nervousness among the players, he said, that manifested itself in sloppiness. Sure enough, Canada struggled in subsequent games against Switzerland, which took them to a shoot-out. In their next round-robin game, Team U.S.A.  beat them.

Credit whomever with the turnaround that ended in Canada’s inspirational gold-medal victory over the Americans. The coaches. The elders in the lineup. But rest assured it’s not an exercise anyone on Team Canada would care to repeat in Sochi. And if the remedy is tougher-than-expected opponents in the early going, then the Canadians owe a debt of thanks to Norway, a team comprised of creditable players employed in European club leagues and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

Canada opened up a 2-0 lead early in the second period on a searing shot by defenceman Shea Weber, followed by wrister by Jamie Benn off the rush. But the Norwegians tied 22 seconds into the third when Canadian goaltender Carey Price got his wires crossed with his defence while retrieving the puck behind the net.

Forward Mathis Olimb stole it, circled out front and fired a shot that linemate Patrick Thoresen managed to tip in. Drew Doughty restored the two-goal lead less than 90 seconds later, but after that—despite numerous goal-mouth flurries—they couldn’t get it past goalkeeper Lars Haugen.

“Obviously they’re continuing to get better,” said Weber, who recalls the 2010 game against Norway vividly. “They’re not slouches. Their players play in top leagues over here and the KHL. They’ve got a couple of guys who’ve played in the NHL, so we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

Maybe, but the gaze of the nation nevertheless turns to Babcock and his assistants, Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien and Ken Hitchcock to see what adjustments they’ll make for Friday’s matchup with Austria. P.K. Subban, the dynamic Norris Trophy winner, whose play with the Montreal Canadiens stirs as much angst as delight in his coaches, draws into the lineup, and so does forward Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche. But Babcock hadn’t decided who would sit.

Austria is arguably less prepared to handle the Canadian superstars than Norway is. If they stay within two goals of the defending Olympic champions, you can expect a much different expression on Mike Babcock’s face.

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