THN in Sochi: Five things we learned from Canada’s Olympic debut

It took a little while to get going, but Canada rolled to a positive start in the Olympics with a 3-1 win over Norway that wasn’t near as close as the score would lead you to believe. As this team comes together, some trends are beginning to emerge.

SOCHI – After Drew Doughty scored to make it 3-1 for Canada in its first game of the 2014 Olympics, he apparently told coach Mike Babcock that it was the first backhand goal he’s ever scored. Like, in his entire life.

“I don’t know if I buy that,” Babcock said.

He probably has reason to be a little dubious about that one. Now, Doughty will never be confused with Dave Keon, but we’re willing to bet he’s put at least a few backhanders past goalies in his time. If not, well then we’ve learned something new about Doughty. And that’s good because Canada’s first game of the Olympics was all about learning new things.

The first thing we learned: Canada has a mother lode of firepower up front, but if its first game was any indication, as much of the impetus to score will come from the back end as it does from the forwards. Two of the three goals Canada scored came from defensemen and they seemed to have the green light to take the puck to the net. Alex Pietrangelo, in particular, had a number of terrific looks.

And the scary thing about that is P.K. Subban hasn’t even played yet, but he’s scheduled to tonight against Austria.

“Coach Babcock continued to tell us we needed to have the fastest ‘D’ in the tournament,” Doughty said. “I think (Babcock) is just letting me play my game. He’s just letting me jump in as much as I can. He’s letting me play and I love it. He’s a great coach and I’m happy to be here playing for him.”

The second thing we learned: Well, not exactly because we already pretty much knew this, but there is not a team that can even come close to Canada in terms of depth at forward. Consider this: Patrice Bergeron is an elite two-way center in the NHL and he played right wing on the fourth line. John Tavares played just over 11 minutes and Rick Nash played a little more than 12. Tavares, Bergeron, Jamie Benn and Martin St-Louis rotated around on the fourth line and were probably the team’s best line in the game. Benn, in particular, wrung an enormous amount out of only 8:52 in ice time.

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“All 14 guys up front when they came here knew they would be battling for ice time,” Babcock said. “I thought those guys were terrific.”

The third thing we learned: Familiarity matters. Babcock stressed that there will be tweaks and his lines are not set in stone, but those who play together in the NHL played together here. Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz were on the same line, as were Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. The St. Louis Blues twin towers Jay Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo were also a defense pair.

“When you have to make adjustments quick, it definitely helps,” Crosby said. “You don’t have to relearn everything. There’s definitely some advantage to that. It’s not everything, but I think it helps the process for sure.”

The fourth thing we learned: The wider international ice doesn’t make that much of a difference, at least in the offensive zone. The international ice is 15 feet wider than an NHL surface, but the distance between the blueline and the goal line is only 58 feet, compared to 64 feet in the NHL. In terms of area, the offensive zone is 5,800 square feet in international hockey, compared to 5,440 in the NHL. But the compressed length more than makes up for the width.

“What I learned tonight about the big ice is the big ice isn’t very big,” Babcock said. “What I mean by that is the offensive zone is way smaller, length-wise, so the ‘D’ have a harder time getting to the middle to shoot the pucks. They can get to you way quicker. We spend all this time talking about the ice being way bigger, but the scoring areas inside the dots is way smaller.”

The fifth thing we learned: Norway can play. Despite giving up two inches and 18 pounds, on average, the Norwegians came out early showing absolutely no signs of being intimidated. They looked faster and more aggressive and they dug in and played a physical game. Their 26-year-old goalie Lars Haugen, who plays in the Kontinental League, provided NHL-caliber goaltending, if only for one day.

“What I liked about tonight’s game,” Babcock said, “it was hard.”