At 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, the puck will drop between Canadian and Norwegian sticks to kick off both team’s 2014 Olympic effort…and the outcome is a forgone conclusion. I feel fairly safe writing that. I mean, I’m still gonna watch and all, but I’m not wrong.
So what can fans really take away from a team’s first game versus an inferior opponent? If they only win by a couple are they destined to miss the medals? Does a 7-0 rout cement the team as a can’t-miss squad? Are these questions to which the answers are clearly “no” annoying? (Answers: The last sentence was the only “yes.”)
The good news is, the answer to “what can we take away from Canada’s performance in their first two ‘easy’ games?” isn’t exactly “nothing.” We’ll need to be cautious with it, but there are certainly some things I’ll be looking for out of the Canadian squad that will negate the need for a massive rout to feel good about how things went in the first two games.
Ask these four questions to help yourself out, too.
Did Canada “play fast?”
This is a staple of Mike Babcock teams – play fast, play fast, play fast. Basically what he means by that is, can we run a smart version of Mike D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less” offense? Can we effectively run Chip Kelly’s college offense? Can we, for ease of explanation (for those of you who only love hockey), take the game to the other team and force them to make split-second decisions without consulting a coach, cheat sheet or teammate?
It may not work as well in other sports as it does in hockey (okay, it doesn’t at all), but in this sport your main goal offensively is to create chaos and find the openings that come with errors in coverage. From there, you hope to generate shots from dangerous places. That’s about all you can do, and it takes energy to do it well.
Did Canada appear to be stressing out Norway with their pace to the point where you started to feel bad for them and wanted to pour them three fingers of absinthe? Because that would be a good sign.
Was Canada making the proper reads on their breakouts and in the neutral zone?
Watching hockey on TV is a little like sitting in the pressbox – you can see where the open guys are. At ice level you find that all the bodies limit a lot of those views, so with that, your players almost need to intuitively know where guys are going to be so when they’re pressured they know where the safe spots are.
If you see a d-man skating the puck up the ice with an open guy racing up the left wing and he forces a pass into coverage up the right side – whether it works or not, that’s concerning. Every goal is massive in these games, and getting away with a risky play that turns into a goal-for against Norway could be a play that gets picked off and goes the other way when you’re up against the States.
So did the Canadians find the right option (way) more often than not? It’s kind of important that they figure out where that is.
Did the Canadians just really enjoy “having it,” or did they try to get the puck to the trouble spots?
As I’ve written before, the tendency on the big ice for skill players is to just have the puck. In the chaos of a rink that’s 85 feet wide, the guy who can do that is obviously a good player, so guys like doing it. It reflects well on them. But on a rink that’s 15 feet wider, go nuts buddy, you can have it all day out there on the paint, says every defender on the ice.
Teams sag and play tight on big ice, so you want to see your team try to infiltrate that, try to drag defenders out of it, try to create holes in the middle of it. Less talented teams seem to love the big ice at the Olympics because North Americans playing international hockey often forget that possession time doesn’t exactly translate to goals if you don’t use that time to get somewhere dangerous.
Did Canada give up many scoring chances against the comparably less talented team?
I tend to think that chemistry among lines matters most defensively, because scoring is hard, and sometimes you just get lucky at the other end regardless of how well you know your lineys. You do the best you can and hope to find a clean look or fortuitous bounce. But defensively, well, that takes relationships.
You need to figure out if your centerman always likes to play low in the d-zone, or if he adheres to the “first man back” policy. Does he like to fly the zone, or prefer to break out low and slow? If he gets a touch on the puck, does he like to rim it or try to fish it out? As much as a coach can institute guidelines, guys play they way they play, and you just hope that they’re committed enough to the defensive part of their role that the team doesn’t give up a bunch of chances. If a team does and they’re playing a lesser opponent…good luck against Russia’s top six.
If the Norwegian national team beats Canada today, fans north of the 48 are allowed to panic. It’s one thing to get beat by a lesser team in the NHL in game 53 on a Tuesday night, but it’s another to need excuses after game one at the Olympics. No player should be cheating in any direction this afternoon or tomorrow, mentally or physically.
But if Canada wins 2-1 or 5-2, or whatever, fans shouldn’t panic because it wasn’t 7-0. Winning is barely the main priority for contending teams in the early going – getting on the same page is, because in a matter of days you’ll run into the opponent who isn’t Norway, and all the goals in the world in the round-robin games won’t save you. This is the time to get your game figured out.