Hockey

Tim Wharnsby - Thursday Feb. 13, 2014 17:07 ET

Team Canada's slow start in Sochi no surprise

Coach Mike Babcock upset with lack of scoring chances

Canada Norway
John Tavares, Jamie Benn and Patrice Bergeron formed Canada's best line in the Sochi Olympic opener. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP)
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SOCHI – Slow and messy starts seem to be par for the course for the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team.

Even though, the 2014 edition enjoyed three days of practice and four skates, in total, before the opener, Sidney Crosby and Co. were not sharp in their 3-1 win against Norway at the Bolshoy Ice Palace on Thursday.

There was little authority from Canada. There were some nerves.

But slow starts have been the case in the past three Winter Games, when Canada usually had only a day or two of on-ice sessions before the game-action began.

Norway deserves credit for its determined game and defensive zone coverage. But even though the Canadians outshot their opponents 38-20, their power play (0-for-2) was abysmal and their scoring touch around Norwegian goalie Lars Haugen was missing in action.

Canadian head coach Mike Babcock revealed afterwards that his club mustered only 24 scoring chances.

Canada pulled out the victory because the fourth line of Jamie Benn, John Tavares and Patrice Bergeron came to play, despite limited ice time, and the defence played an active and effective game offensively.

At best-on-best tournaments like the Olympics, Canadian players remark time and time again that they want to get better as the tournament goes on. Sometimes they overcome slow starts, like in 2002 and 2010. Sometimes they don’t, like in 2006. But a common theme has been a slow start in the preliminary rounds.

2002

L 5-2 Sweden
W 3-2 Germany
T 3-3 Czech Republic

2006

W 7-2 Italy
W 5-1 Germany
L 2-0 Switzerland

2010

W 8-0 Norway
W 3-2 Switzerland (shootout)
L 5-3 United States

Canadian Olympic teams struggle to come together quickly. It doesn’t matter if it’s the bigger international-sized ice surface or the smaller NHL rink. One of the reasons is because they are asked to take on different roles and reduced ice time. Not every one can make the adjustment seamlessly.

Benn, Bergeron, Tavares were 'excellent'

That wasn’t the case for the fourth liners. Benn averages 18 minutes and 51 seconds of ice time with the Dallas Stars, but played only 8:52 for Canada in the opener.

Still, in an early shift in the second period, his grit drew a penalty, in which defenceman Shea Weber scored from the point before Norway touched the puck. Benn didn’t get an assist, but the Victoria native did most of the work.

A few shifts later, Benn scored again to put his team in front 2-0.

“We knew coming here that every one of us plays big minutes for your club team, but its about doing whatever it takes to win games over here,” Benn said.

“You have to prepare like you do for any other game. But you have to stay focused throughout the game.”

Benn, Bergeron and Tavares, as well as the 13th forward, Martin St. Louis, caught the Babcock’s watchful eye in a good way.

“I thought they were all excellent,” he said.

“Benn skated and played hard.”

Babcock won’t make his players skate on Friday morning before their game against Austria. Instead, he will have a video session. No doubt some of the discussion and review will centre around the power play and performing on the big ice.

The international rink has an extra 15 feet on its width. But after a few days over here, Babcock is not convinced the ice is any bigger because the offensive zones are smaller. The goal line is further out and the blue lines are four feet closer to the net.

“Big ice isn’t really big because the offensive zone is smaller,” Babcock said.

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