SOCHI, Russia – Martin St. Louis gets his chance as Team Canada’s 13th forward in the first elimination game of the Olympic tournament.
St. Louis is in and Matt Duchene is out against 11th-seeded Latvia, which upset Switzerland to reach the quarter-finals. Coach Mike Babcock expects St. Louis to handle the difficult situation as a veteran player.
The 38-year-old says he is ready for the mental and physical challenge.
“It’s a situation that you fully understand it’s a possibility you might be in, in these tournaments,” he said. “You’re trying to go out there and earn another shift.”
Canada did not do line rushes during Wednesday’s morning skate at the Bolshoy Ice Dome’s practice rink. If the same lines hold from Tuesday, Sidney Crosby will centre Chris Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf will centre Jamie Benn and Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews will centre Patrick Marleau and Jeff Carter and John Tavares will centre Patrick Sharp and Rick Nash with St. Louis rotating in.
“The reality is we dress 13 forwards each game,” Babcock said. “One guy hardly gets on the ice. It’s a hard, hard situation for people that play 22 minutes. That’s the way it is. You’ve got to find a way to help out when you get a chance.”
St. Louis offers the ability to make a big play at a crucial time, but so do Matt Duchene and P.K. Subban, who are Canada’s health scratches. Dan Hamhuis will be the seventh defenceman, leaving Subban out of the lineup for the third time in four games.
Babcock said Subban, last year’s Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenceman, has been “excellent” in accepting his role.
“He’s a proud guy. And he’s here and he doesn’t get to dress,” Babcock said. “Nobody is probably thrilled about that. Those are hard decisions that we make, and in the end they’ve got to live it.”
“That doesn’t mean they’ve got to like it. But you’re here to be a good pro and a good teammate and as it’s not about me and it’s not him, it’s about Canada. As long as we all remember that, we’re fine.”
It’s about Canada is also this team’s approach going into Wednesday night’s game against a largely-unknown Latvian opponent. Sault Ste. Marie native and Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan is the most known quantity there, perhaps along with 41-year-old defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh.
“I know Sandis Ozolinsh played for me and helped me get to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and he’s their captain,” Babcock said. “They’re better as a sum than they are as parts.”
Latvia beat Switzerland 3-1 Tuesday night to set up this date with Canada. Winger Patrick Marleau said he noticed from that game that the Latvians were a very “structured” bunch.
“It’s not going to be that many breakdowns, so when you do get that opportunity you’re going to have to make the most out of it,” Marleau said.
Babcock came away from the Latvia-Switzerland qualification game impressed with how the underdogs held on.
“They had good chances on (Swiss goaltender Jonas) Hiller, but they spent a lot of time in their own zone,” Babcock said. “Ted called a timeout, they were all bent over and dying. There was a couple more times I thought they might die. They hung in there, hung in there and battled.
“If I’m a Latvian I’m very, very proud. They competed. That’s all you can ask. You’ve got to maximize what you’ve been given.”
With the exception of Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia’s only NHL player, most of the team is able to practise together. There’s a benefit in that Latvia can perfect defensive systems to frustrate more-skilled teams like Canada.
“It’s a team that’s similar to the other teams we’ve played so far, a team that works extremely hard and a team that packs the slot and gives you as little space as possible in that area,” Bergeron said in French. “So we’ll have to work very hard and come up with a strategy to get through that system they use.”
Canada’s system involves defending tough and trying to get to the middle of the ice. With Babcock supervising, players worked on power-play and extra-attacker situations during Wednesday’s skate.
The top power-play unit features Crosby, Tavares and Carter with Sharp and Duncan Keith at the points. The second unit had Toews, Getzlaf and Perry with Drew Doughty and Shea Weber at the points.
Through three games, Canada has only four power plays, a point of some frustration.
“Hard to get them, eh? We spent half a week practising them, You almost wonder why you spend so much time preparing for them when they never come,” Babcock said Tuesday. “I think we’ve played in the offensive zone for three straight games. When you have the puck, you draw penalties. It hasn’t happened.”
Canada is 1-for-4 on the power play so far.
“Maybe we can do a better job of sustaining pressure and wearing them down so it forces the other team to take some more penalties,” Marleau said.
Carey Price starts in goal for Team Canada, as Babcock announced Tuesday. Roberto Luongo will serve as the backup.
“I’m just trying to do my job like everybody else,” Price said Tuesday. “I’m excited. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Projected lineup for Team Canada’s quarter-final game against Latvia
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Patrice Bergeron
Jamie Benn – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Patrick Marleau – Jonathan Toews – Jeff Carter
Patrick Sharp – John Tavares – Rick Nash / Martin St. Louis
Duncan Keith – Shea Weber
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Drew Doughty
Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Carey Price – Roberto Luongo
Matt Duchene – P.K. Subban – Mike Smith
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