Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Game One - Canada vs. Norway

With the drop of the puck and a clean face-off win by Sidney Crosby, Canada's first game of the Olympic hockey tournament was underway. The opposition for Team Canada was Norway, a team making their first appearance in the Games since 1994, when they hosted the tournament in Lillehammer. Steve Yzerman and his management group watched from above with Assistant Coach Ken Hitchcock as their months of planning and scouting came to fruition on the ice. When the first period ended 0-0, many Canadians were holding their breath, worried they were about to witness a repeat of the 2006 Games, which saw Canada finish seventh behind countries like Switzerland.

In their post-game reports, some media analysts called Canada's first period "lacklustre" and "unspectacular". Really? What was expected of a team that gathered for their first practise on Monday evening and their first game on Tuesday? In these types of tournaments, the goal of these early games is to progress and demonstrate improvement in each period and each game, which Canada clearly did.

The first period for Canada was a "second" practise, finding the proper line combinations and easing any nervousness and butterflies out of their systems. With approximately three minutes left in the first period, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron delivered some quality hits on the forecheck and Team Canada realized that while they are a group of all-stars, this was not the NHL's all-star game. They also began to realize that the carpenter working the net was not Joseph the Carpenter but Pal Grotnes, a 32-year-old Norwegian goaltender and full-time carpenter. The message in the first intermission from the coaching staff should have been, "practise is over, time to play hockey."

With some subtle line changes, Jarome Iginla joined Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash on one of the top lines (well, aren't they all top lines on Team Canada?), the scoring drought dating back to the last Olympic Games was broken with a power play goal by Iginla, assisted by Crosby and Drew Doughty. Three goals in the second, five in the third and Canada finished the evening with an 8-0 win to start the tournament.

Not to give away the topic of my Main Street Week article, which will be available here at The Voice of Sport on Friday, but team chemistry was the key to victory in this game and will be throughout the tournament. On one power play last night against Norway, four out of five players were members of the San Jose Sharks. On another power play later in the game, we saw three members of the Anaheim Ducks, joined on defence by Chris Pronger, a Stanley Cup champion with the Ducks in 2007. The management group certainly left some all-stars off the team, but with their selections to represent Canada, they have truly built a team in its truest sense.

Starting in goal for Canada and hearing the familiar chants of "Loouuuu", was Montreal native and current Vancouver Canuck, Roberto Luongo. Stopping all fifteen shots he faced on the evening, we may have seen the last of Luongo in the Canadian net. With 2002 Gold medal winner, Martin Brodeur set to start game two against Switzerland, barring a loss; Brodeur will start game three against the United States and should be in the net for the rest of the tournament. Marc-Andre Fleury is in Vancouver as well, but it is expected he will not see any time on the ice, other then in practise.

Luongo and Brodeur are both “everyday” goaltenders, they are most effective when they play on a regular basis. Luongo’s last start came on February 14th against Minnesota, where he allowed five goals on 32 shots - he was pulled from the game. Brodeur’s last start came on February 13th against the Carolina Hurricanes. He allowed four goals on 22 shots and was also pulled from the game. If Luongo starts game three, Brodeur will have one start in over a week, which is something the New Jersey goaltender is not accustomed too.

While it was a wonderful tribute to Luongo’s abilities, giving him the start in Vancouver, Head Coach Mike Babcock’s master plan has to include Brodeur as the number one goaltender. If the team starts to rotate Brodeur and Luongo on a game-to-game basis, both goaltenders will fall out of rhythm and the results could be disastrous for Team Canada and their fans. Someone will have to become the “everyday” goaltender for the team and my money is on Brodeur being the man.

Game two of the tournament is Thursday evening (in the Eastern time zone), with Switzerland providing the opposition. Look for a more structured, harder hitting first period from Team Canada. Practise is officially over and the Games have begun.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

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