Hockey

Ron MacLean - Thursday Feb. 6, 2014 19:28 ET

Ron MacLean: Team Canada can't take weaker opponents for granted

Key for Canadians is to score early

Jonathan Toews
Jonathan Toews will need to remain in control during the games against weaker teams (Getty Images)

I recall early in my relationship with Don Cherry, he said this about Al Arbour and Kirk Muller: “You know Ron, Al and Kirk are the only two people I can think of, in 50 years in the game, they're the only two people who don't know who they are.”

Whenever I would talk about liking someone Don would usually agree yet would often add, "but they know who they are."

It was Don's way of saying they could never just, be. They had to think about their actions. It's an important consideration with respect to predicting upsets in important games.

I know zero about the NFL. Maybe you saw the Seattle Super Bowl romp coming, perhaps you knew who the Seahawks were, but I didn't; and when they crushed the Denver Broncos I immediately thought of Don's little predictor. To my mind Denver knew who they were and, more importantly, did not know Seattle.

You see, those who know who they are, are susceptible to an upset. Bloated on winning and having attained the fear of losing, they're ripe.

It’s a complicated state of being.

There are examples. Let’s start with 1972 and the numerous reasons why Canada almost lost the Summit Series, but if you ask Ken Dryden, the number one reason was they didn't know who the Soviets were.

It happened to the Soviets too. In 1980, none of us expected Team USA to win. The USSR had won 11 world titles, they beat the NHL stars 6-0 in the rubber match of the Challenge Cup in 1979, and just two weeks before the Olympics they hammered the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition game.

The Soviets were fat on success. The Americans? At the high school and college level; they were all leading scorers, all-stars and winners. The Soviets did not know who the Americans were, got into a tight game and then were struck down by the fear of losing.

In the 1998 Games in Nagano, the Czechs defeated Canada in the semi-finals of the Olympics with just 9 NHL players. When I look at this Olympic tournament I see a couple of teams that make me think of upsets. Canada obviously has the most to lose. Defending champions. A star studded lineup. They are the team to beat.

Crosby, Toews, Keith need to shine

The Canadians must be sure not to take any opponent for granted. Teams like Norway and Austria will know that the key is to get the Canadians to not just, be. They will go at the best Canadian players with and without the puck, to make players think about that, versus simply reading and reacting. That will buy the weaker team time, which ironically can be an advantage for the Canadians. The great players on those weaker teams will try to take control and their teammates will follow and they will force it. And that's when trouble begins.

Sidney Crosby is always targeted in this fashion and he'll need to remain in control. Same for Jonathan Toews. They have the special talent required to score on the big ice, so they will be marked ferociously.

Watch Crosby, Toews and Duncan Keith for signs of thinking.

Harry Neale used to say, “Don't think you'll hurt the team.”

Slava Fetisov was the key when the Soviets were at their height. He was mean, moved the puck, and rarely ran around. Ryan Suter of the U.S. has a lot of Fetisov in him.

Duncan Keith is Canada's pivot and his game will be important as the key for Canada is to score early. The weaker team gets demoralized.

If they are to be upset by anyone, it's likely to be the opponent which scores two early goals and gets Canada thinking.

The other team which is intriguing to me is Sweden. They remind me of Ken Dryden's 1971 Montreal Canadiens. That Habs team, which Dick Irvin calls the favourite story of his career, upset Boston and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup. It was mostly because of Dryden, but this was a good team, a little past and a little before its time. The past, represented by Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Frank Mahovlich; the future was Dryden, Guy Lapointe and Pete Mahovlich. Just enough scoring, just enough surprise to make Boston think, “Why can't I put this guy away?”

Sweden may just be one of those teams, even without injured Henrik Sedin. A little past in Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg and Daniel Sedin. On the cusp Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Gabriel Landeskog.

And they have the goaltending.

Sweden is Montreal circa 1971. Even with the different format, they are not to be underestimated. Each Stanley Cup series is two weeks. This complete Olympic Tourney is two weeks -- two very unforgiving weeks, especially for those who start thinking they know who they are.

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