Sunday, February 16, 2014

Tune ups done, Canada looks to upgrade the tempo and passion against Finland

The first two games of any International tournament, Olympic or other, usually take on the spectre of the tune up matches.

Normally the two teams are at the opposite end of the tournament rankings and while disaster could strike for a favourite, most times enough is done by the team expected to win to keep the overall plan on track, shake off the jet lag or rust and configure the line ups.

Such it appears was the blue print for Canada's first two matches at Sochi.

The Tournament debut against Norway, provided for all the thrills of a mandatory scrimmage, at least for the Canadian side. Which appeared to use the game to get their Sochi legs, test out a few line combinations and adjust to the larger ice surface and the peculiar dimensions that International and Olympic hockey offer.

For most of the game Canada seemed to not be in sync on the ice, passes weren't particularly crisp, the drive into the offensive zone often unravelling as the Norwegians adopted a rush to the net strategy, where everyone collapses, clogging up lanes and batting away any stray pucks that come their way.

To their credit Norway's defenders showed little in the way of fear, dropping in front of shots from the point with regular frequency. What they didn't gain on the scoreboard, they picked up in respect and dedication to defensive play.

Still, it is the scoreboard where a short tournament is measured and on opening night, Canada prevailed with a 3-1 victory,  not the offensive burst that many had hoped for, or expected, but at least it provided the all important W in the column that counts the most.

The second match up gave Canadian fans what they had been hoping for, stronger offensive display. Featuring lots of goals and a much more consistent approach to the play against the Austrians, a team which in this one at least, gave all the appearance of a squad just happy to be invited to the tournament.

Austria did not put up much of a struggle for Canada, the flow of the play was decidedly in the Austrian zone for most of the game, though when called upon Roberto Luongo made the required saves to snuff out any potential danger, all be it  on occasion assisted by a post or a cross bar.

The one noticeable difference between the two games, was the much more efficient use of the ice by Canada, making the right moves to avoid any trapping that Austria tried to put in place, taking the puck to the net with great frequency and finding reward six times by the time the final horn sounded.

These were two games that help to propel Canada towards the top seed in their Division. Real time action which gave the coaches an indication as to where the line combinations may need a tweak or two and most importantly, allowing Canada to finally find a rhythm to the beat of Sochi and what is yet to come.

Sunday will perhaps provide a better test of Mike Babcock's plan, Finland even as beat us as they appear to be due to injuries, seems to drive their game up a notch when they take on Canada.

That's what the Canadian team could use at this point, a bit of push, a faster pace, a challenge from a lineup that still features enough skilled talent to give Canada something to measure against.

Of course, collecting a third win and punching their way towards the medal round is the most important point of the Sunday exercise, the focus of the path to the gold medal still very much a part of the process ahead.

Canada plays Finland at Noon ET, 9 AM Pacific on CBC

You can review some of the archive of items on Sochi that we've assembled from our Men's Tournament anchor page.

Scores of the Olympic Hockey tournament can be found here, while notes on the tournament and Canada's travels in it can be found here.

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