THN in Sochi: Canada brings rubber knife to gunfight

The Canadian Olympic team has its country’s top seven goal scorers on its roster and that group has a total of one goal. Against Finland, Canada played a passive style that cost it a regulation win, and possibly had more serious ramifications.

SOCHI – For 62 minutes and 32 seconds, the players on both Canada and Finland skated through their game oblivious to the fact that the loser stood an excellent chance of having to face Russia in the quarterfinal. And for the first 60 minutes, they were equally unaware of the fact that a regulation win would give their team the winner of Slovenia and Austria in the quarterfinal.

At least that’s what they said. “We didn’t tell our players nothing,” said Canadian coach Mike Babcock. “We just tried to play the game.”

That is, in a word, astounding. How could a team not want to go into a game armed with the knowledge that a victory in regulation time would basically pave its way to the semifinal? Perhaps it’s too much for players to process. Perhaps it puts too much pressure on them in what is already a pressure-packed environment. It’s something I’d want to know if I were playing. But because it took overtime and another Drew Doughty goal for Canada to win the game, it will now play the winner of the Switzerland-Latvia qualifier in the quarterfinal Wednesday.

When I pointed out to Babcock that a regulation win would have meant either Slovenia or Austria and asked whether he wouldn’t have preferred that, the coach got a little testy. “Do you think we didn’t try to do that?” Babcock said. “They tried to win. We tried to win. Maybe from way up there, it didn’t look like that. It was like that.”

Well then I stand corrected because it looked to me as though Canada played this game not to lose. And there’s a big difference between playing that way and playing to win. What should drive Canadian hockey fans to distraction is how its country comes into these competitions puffing its chest and claiming to be the best hockey nation in the world, then approaches the games sometimes as though it’s the Canadian national soccer team going up against Brazil.

Canada came into this tournament with a roster that has scored 378 goals in the best league in the world so far this season. The top seven Canadian-born goal scorers in the NHL this season are on this team and that group has accounted for one measly goal so far. And against Finland, Canada allowed a tiny hockey country with 11 non-NHL players on its roster to push the supposedly biggest, strongest, fastest and most skilled players on the planet to areas of the ice where they couldn’t do any offensive damage.

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The list is dizzying. Sidney Crosby, zero goals. Corey Perry, zero goals. Patrick Sharp, zero goals. Chris Kunitz, zero goals. John Tavares, zero goals. Jonathan Toews, zero goals. If it weren’t for its defense corps, you’d wonder whether Canada would be able to generate any offense at all.

What is wrong with this picture? When you have a bazooka, you bring that to battle, not a rubber knife. The way this team played against Finland reminds these eyes of the group of NHL players Canada sent to the Olympics in 1998. That semifinal game against the Czechs was lost in a shootout, but it should never have come to that. Canada allowed the Czechs to push its players to the periphery and there was absolutely no risk-taking involved whatsoever. And by the time it got to the shootout, Dominik Hasek was inside their heads.

That was a fatal mistake by the Canadian coaching staff. It remains to be seen whether this one will be the same. Perhaps it’s better that Canada gets a difficult opponent in the quarterfinal. After all, the Canadians looked very average in 2010 until they faced Russia in the quarterfinal game and came out like caged gorillas, in the words of Russian goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Should Canada get by its next game, USA will be the opponent. Perhaps Canada wouldn’t be ready for such a good team if it played against patsies in three of its first four games.

But this could also be an enormous opportunity lost. If you think the Finns play a tight and restrictive defensive system, wait until you get a load of the Swiss, assuming they get past the Latvians on Tuesday. The Swiss have allowed only one goal in their first three games and their goalie, Jonas Hiller, hasn’t allowed a single goal yet and looks very, very much like a guy who wants desperately to carry an overmatched team on his shoulders.

It didn’t have to be this way. Canada could have tuned up against Austria or Slovenia if it had won in regulation time. As soon as that clock hit the 60-minute mark with the score tied, that changed to a probable date against either the stingiest team in the tournament or the host team that is desperate to win a gold medal on home soil. We’ll soon find out whether that was a fatal development for the self-proclaimed best hockey nation in the world.