THN in Sochi: Canada’s “lesser lights” continue to shine at Olympics

Jeff Carter and Roberto Luongo emerged as pivotal players for Canada, continuing a tried-and-true Canadian tradition of players at the lower end of the depth chart making significant contributions.

SOCHI – Being Canada’s 13th forward at the Olympics is akin to being the first man off the bench for the Dream Team, the injury replacement for Kenya’s marathon team or Meryl Streep’s understudy. You know you’re really good, but it still kind of rankles you.

Hockey players are proud people. That’s particularly true for the elite ones. It’s that unwillingness to accept a lesser role under any circumstance that makes them great. Canada has time and again seen it’s 13th forward go on to great things. Jonathan Toews was the extra man on the bench at the beginning of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and by the end was its best player and the top forward of the tournament. Martin St-Louis started Canada’s first game of these Olympics as the 13th man and found himself on the top line for the second one.

And then there was Jeff Carter, who even by his own admission struggled mightily in Canada’s win over Norway Wednesday night. For his efforts, he was the odd man out of the four-line rotation, then responded with a natural hat trick in Canada’s 6-0 win over Austria. In fact, with just 8:46 in ice time, Carter did more with less than any other player on the Canadian roster.

Carter, in fact, acknowledged that his play in the first game and his status in the second added some urgency to his effort.

“I knew I had to be better,” Carter said. “Tough game (Wednesday) night, but I felt a lot better today. Our line got rolling early with (Drew Doughty’s) goal and we kept going from there, so it was a good night.”

It borders on ridiculous to suggest there are any lesser lights on this team, but it has been those players we didn’t expect to have as much of an impact who are having the biggest ones so far. Roberto Luongo, who had his own titanic struggles coming into the Olympics, was as solid and poised in the net as he has been in weeks. He stopped all 23 shots directed at him, but more importantly, looked entirely in control in doing so.

“It was my first win in six weeks,” Luongo said, “so I feel pretty good about that.”

Luongo has indeed given the Canadian management team pause to consider what to do with its next goaltending move. Carey Price certainly wasn’t bad in Canada’s 3-1 win over Norway, but Luongo looked so comfortable and in control in the Canadian net. And the fact that he has bailed Canada out twice – in the World Cup in 2004 when Martin Brodeur was hurt and in Vancouver when Brodeur faltered – undoubtedly will factor into Mike Babcock’s decision who starts against Finland on Sunday.

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It was actually quite important that Luongo kept the Austrians from scoring, since goal differential will be an important factor once the quarterfinal seedings are set. Canada has already punched its ticket to a quarterfinal game, but in the case of teams with indentical records, the higher seed will draw the lower-seeded opponent in that game. After two games, Finland leads the tournament at plus-9, while Canada is now at plus-88. USA has played just one game and is plus-6.

Canada also continues to get a significant offensive thrust from its blueline corps with goals coming again from Drew Doughty and Shea Weber. Weber, who actually put the puck through the netting in a game four years ago in Vancouver, scored on another unstoppable blast that found the top of the net.

Babcock isn’t certain whether Weber has supplanted Zdeno Chara as the player with the hardest shot in the league, but he is well aware of how much Weber’s shot can hurt, both literally and figuratively.

“I don’t play my best players (in Detroit) penalty killing when we play Nashville,” Babcock said, “just flat out because I’m scared (Weber) will break their leg or ankle. He shoots the puck that hard.”

NOTES: Patrick Sharp, Dan Hamhuis and Carey Price were the healthy scratches for Canada, but Babcock said they would all be back in against Finland, meaning Matt Duchene, P.K. Subban and Mike Smith will likely sit. Having to make these personnel decisions, Babcock said, is one of the most difficult parts of his job. “It’s ridiculous, actually,” he said. “You tell an athlete who competed hard and did the right things he’s not playing, that’s no fun. If you’re Sharpie for example, you’re a high-end player. I grab him when he’s walking in today to tell him he’s not playing. He doesn’t ask me why and it’s good he doesn’t ask me why because I’ve got no reason why.”…Emanuel Viveiros, who won a silver medal with Canada’s world junior team in 1986 and played briefly for Canada’s national team, is the Austrian team’s coach. After his NHL career ended Viveiros played in Austria and later represented Austria in the Olympics. “Weird,” Viveiros said when asked what it felt like to play against his native country. “I’m a member of the (Canadian) national team alumni, so it was a bit surreal.”…There are rumors circulating that Russian president Vladimir Putin will be in attendance for Russia’s game against USA tomorrow night…Five of Canada’s six goals were scored by players who play for California-based teams. With Patrick Marleau’s three assists, 10 of the 15 points scored by Canada were accounted for by LA Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks.