Matchup gives Team Canada more leeway to tinker

Mike Babcock has juggled Canada’s lines more than most people are comfortable with, but even still they need to settle down in order to power through Latvia and head to the semi-finals.

SOCHI, Russia – One Swiss reporter referred to it as a "love story" – the uncanny way that Team Canada and his country’s national team always seem to come together in tournament likes this. That was before love turned to heartache on Tuesday night.

It was Latvia that stole Switzerland’s spot in the quarter-final dance with Canada thanks to an unexpected 3-1 win in the qualification round. That guaranteed Latvia a top-eight finish at the Olympics for the first time ever and left the plucky Baltic nation dreaming of more.

Belief is something that coach Ted Nolan seems to be able to instill in all of his teams and the Latvians are no different. Remember that their tournament started here with a 1-0 loss to Switzerland after they surrendered a goal with less than eight seconds to play in regulation. Most teams wouldn’t recover from that kind of setback.

But here we are in the playoff round and the Latvians continue to fight on. The Swiss, meanwhile, are making their way home.

"David and Goliath, I guess," Nolan said Tuesday at Bolshoy Ice Dome. "I just really believe anything can happen in this game. You look what’s going on here so far. So you’ve got to believe and do the right things more often than the other team.

"It at least gives you an opportunity."

In theory, it should make Team Canada’s path to the semifinals easier. The Swiss have proven to be a tough opponent ever since delivering a shocking 2-0 upset at the 2006 Turin Games. They have added a couple victories at the IIHF World Hockey Championship since then and even took Canada to a shootout at the 2010 Olympics before losing.

While the Latvians clearly have to be respected, this offers another opportunity to solidify the forward lines. Sidney Crosby will start with a new top unit for a fourth straight game – Chris Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron are now on his wings – while Jamie Benn finds himself alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

This was the game that the coaching staff had targeted to have the roster set for. However, they might have a little more latitude to tinker given the opponent and the fact that Latvia is playing on back-to-back nights. Finding the best lineup is always a challenge in short best-on-best competitions.

"I think it has to be organic," coaching consultant Ralph Krueger said before the tournament began. "You have to feel your team in a tournament. We all know for all countries the first three games are (about) feeling and finding. Everybody gets a Game 4 … and that’s when you need to have your group in place.

"That’s where you should feel your lineup is set in stone."

The result of the Switzerland-Latvia game showed the value of Team Canada’s preparation for this event. Mike Babcock added Krueger to his staff after he was fired by the Edmonton Oilers in the spring and tasked him with preparing for the coaching styles of other teams. He also had him put together scouting packages for all 11 potential opponents just in case.

Most would have assumed Switzerland was destined to come out of the qualification round – although, to Babcock’s credit, he warned against that following Tuesday’s practice – and he was ready to change course on the fly. At this stage, the most important thing is getting the team to the highest level possible.

"I don’t feel we’re lacking anything on this team," Krueger said. "I think we’ve got it all. It’s just up to us coaches now to put the puzzle together in the right way."

The Latvians are simply happy to hold another ticket in the Olympic lottery. They hadn’t won a game here before beating the Swiss and are now just one more victory away from playing for a medal. However, it would take a monumental upset to send Team Canada home – and they openly acknowledged that fact.

"One of the greatest hockey teams ever," Latvian forward Kaspars Daugavins said. "We’ll try to give them a hard time. You never know, miracles happened before, as long as we earn the miracle.

"We just have to go out there and enjoy it and work hard, just as we did today. Our goalie might stop every shot, he’s good. You never know."

Back home, there has been some unrest about the performance of this Canadian squad despite the fact it has won all three games and is ahead 11-2 on aggregate. It says a lot about what is expected when you wear the red and white.

Babcock reminded reporters that the team only needs to score one more goal than its opponent each night. It was clearly a response to those that have criticized wins. His players vowed to be even sharper in the quarter-final game than the three that came before it.

"It’s do-or-die," standout defenceman Drew Doughty said. "The guys are going to play very desperate. We’re going to be ready to go. We want the same thing everybody else in Canada wants."

Another gold-medal performance to love and cherish.

Here is Team Canada’s projected lineup for the quarter-final game against Latvia:

St. Louis



Scratched: Duchene, Subban, Smith.

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