Canada getting tested on big ice


SOCHI, Russia -- It wasn't quite Wayne Gretzky in Salt Lake City ranting about the world wanting Canada to lose, but Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock was at his crankiest Sunday night in a postgame news conference. He reminded people how hard this Olympic tournament is to win, especially on this side of the ocean, where it's a different game on the big ice.

"You know, it's interesting," Babcock began, after yours truly simply asked the coach where he felt his team's game was after wrapping up the preliminary round. "Every time I've come to Europe and coached a team, whether it be in '97, the world junior, or '04, the world championship, or this time, is no one ever seems to be happy with us. And I think we're competing like crazy, so I'm way happier than people that are sitting 200 feet away.

"It's a hard game. The European game is interesting; it's all about defense, the end zone is smaller ... they get out on your D so quick, the dynamic D we have don't get to shoot any pucks; they play man on man and they're on you like glue, and it's hard, and you have to be committed to doing it. And the other things that happens for the NHL player, and probably for you in the media, is the respect you have for the opposition -- you say, well he doesn't play in the NHL. They're playing for their country, and they play hard. And they make it hard on you. So we've just got to keep getting better."

And Babcock is right with every single thing he said.

Fact is, Canada is in a good spot after wrapping up its preliminary round with a 2-1 overtime win over Finland, unbeaten and playing about as sound a defensive game as anyone here.

The defending Olympic champs have allowed only two goals in three games, and they absolutely suffocated the Finns on Sunday night.

The coaching staff was most preoccupied with the defensive game when they got here, hoping to build from the back out and believing, if they can defend as well as possible, the rest will come.

The other shoe has not dropped quite yet, as Canada is still looking to improve the offensive quality of its game; Sunday night's game was largely won on the back of one forward line: Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Toews and Jeff Carter.

Otherwise, it's still a work in progress on the other units, which were shuffled again in this game.

But against its toughest opposition yet in a very good Finnish squad, Canada played too much on the outside and didn't penetrate the slot enough nor generate enough second chances.

It was a battle Sunday night to find space in the middle.

"Yeah, it's incredibly hard," said Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene, playing on a line with Anaheim stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. "It's been hard this whole tournament. Pucks are bouncing, the ice is not great. There's so much ice out there it's hard to get in the middle. But we got to keep working and keep getting there."

I suspect you'll see work in practice over the next few days specifically addressing that.

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