SOCHI, Russia – It is almost as if we expect Team Canada to be ahead 5-0 immediately after the puck drops in games like this. These tend to be restless occasions, when our finest collection of hockey players is sent out against a nation that should be beaten handily before we have any idea if everything is going to work.
And, wouldn’t you know, the score was still 0-0 against Norway when the first 20 minutes of this Olympic tournament went in the books on Thursday night.
Just like in Vancouver four years ago.
But any small hint of anxiety that may have been felt across the nation was immediately put to rest with what came next: The domination people hope for. The kind of play coach Mike Babcock expects.
Jamie Benn epitomized what Team Canada was able to do in the second period. Despite receiving just 2:54 of ice time – he was one of four players rotating through an effective fourth line – he drew a delayed penalty that resulted in Shea Weber’s opening goal, managed to avoid a head-hunting check from Ole-Kristian Tollefson and scored one of his own to make it 2-0.
All of this from a guy playing on a fourth line. If that sort of thing happens with any consistency in the games ahead, this is going to be an awfully tough team to beat. And, yes, I’m aware that it only added up to just a 3-1 win over Norway, a hockey minnow, but a better team than the one Canada is likely to see when it gets Austria on Friday night.
Tournaments like these aren’t won on the first or second night and getting better day after day creates separation among the top nations. The fact that Canada showed so much during the middle frame against Norway had to be encouraging for Babcock, especially after a first period that lacked crispness. It basically looked like Norway was killing a penalty from start to finish.
“It was a key for us to win our shift each and every time we went out there,” said Benn.
Perhaps the most interesting development in the game was how well the rotation of Benn, John Tavares, Martin St. Louis and Patrice Bergeron worked. It was a challenging night for everyone that was trying to get comfortable with new linemates, but that group had the added challenge of dealing with a different look nearly every time out.
However, that didn’t stop them for being on the ice for both Team Canada goals in the second period and making Babcock’s impending lineup decision difficult. Someone will have to come out when Matt Duchene enters it against Austria. There are no obvious choices from the bottom end of the forward group.
“I don’t think it’s a fourth line,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “That’s really the bottom line.”
As a result, don’t be surprised if there are wider changes from top to bottom still to come. The process that Babcock and his assistants are currently engaged in is trying to find the right mix for when the must-win games arrive next week.
The toughest part of that transformation is that it unfolds in front of the eyes of a watchful nation. A large percentage of the 35 million people who hold a Canadian passport are looking for instant gratification and it rarely works that way.
The players, at least, understand that. There was no sense of panic when Team Canada went back to the dressing room at Bolshoy Ice Dome with the score standing at 0-0 against Norway after a period. They anticipated some early struggles.
“You’re playing your first game and everyone’s probably thinking about where they need to be and systems — probably a thousand things going through their minds,” said Crosby.
The response was impressive. Crosby fed a pass through the legs of a Norwegian defender that would have lit up the highlights if Corey Perry had scored on the ensuing chance. It was part of the wave after crashing wave that Team Canada brought against an overwhelmed opponent.
There were also the game’s opening two goals, not to mention the fact that Norway was held without a shot for 18 minutes of the second period. It was not the type of domination you expect from a Canadian team so soon after coming together.
“We generated a lot on the cycle and really wore them down,” said Tavares. “There was a lot of shifts there where we could see them getting back to the bench and they were tired. We wanted to keep the pace up.”
For 20 minutes, they did. Hockey is not a game of perfection, but the second period against Norway was about as close to perfect as you can get. It could be a sign of great things to come.