The Jonathan Toews, Mike Richards, Rick Nash line was integral at shutting down the Russians' potent attack in Wednesday's 7-3 win. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
It’s become obvious that each time Canada ices its best at the Olympics the same thing happens: everyone not wearing goalie pads defers to everyone else not wearing goalie pads.
It’s not about chemistry. It’s not about nerves. It’s about a lack of urgency. Every Canadian skater believes every other Canadian skater will score next time around; whether it’s the next shift, the one after that or somewhere else down the line.
And until Wednesday, the same could be said this year about every Canadian not named Sidney Crosby – the only forward who looked like he was playing the last game of his life on just about every Olympic shift he’d taken.
Face it: Is it surprising Corey Perry or Jonathan Toews or Eric Staal or Joe Thornton has trouble playing with any sense of urgency when Rick Nash or Crosby or Jarome Iginla or Dany Heatley is up next? However the names are arranged, it’s the same result. Why? These guys are good – and they know it. And after going to war against each other season after season, these guys simply have too much respect for each other to reach for the reins and take the team and opposition by the throat.
Crosby can do it because he’s the undisputed No. 1 or 1A player on the planet. He doesn’t take a backseat to anyone and no one expects him to. But for the rest, it’s harder, which is why Team Canada always needs a great coach. And Mike Babcock is proving to be just that.
When a coach has a team of players unable or unwilling to define their own roles, then he must do it for them. And he must do it without fear of bruising egos or being criticized. And he’s done just that. He made Crosby take two penalty shots in the Switzerland shootout, as well as a Nash-induced penalty shot against Germany when Nash had been on a goal-scoring schnide – one he’s since gotten off.
Message: Crosby is “The Man” on this team. If you don’t like it, go pound sand.
Brenden Morrow is another example. He began the tournament with 13:42 of ice time in the first two games combined. But by Game 3 his play had firmly relegated former top-liner Patrice Bergeron to the 13th forward spot and by the end of the Germany game you could add Mike Richards, Toews and Thornton to the list of players seeing less ice than Morrow. Against Russia, Morrow played more than Ryan Getzlaf, Perry and Heatley.
Or take Iginla. He began the tournament as a fourth-liner, a clear indication Babcock was not taking seniority into consideration when doling-out ice time. But during the third period, when Canada was attempting a comeback against the U.S., he played more than any Canadian forward except Crosby and Thornton. Then against Russia, Iginla’s time on ice was topped only by Crosby and the checking-cum-No. 1 line of Toews, Richards and Nash.
The same scenario played out on the blueline, with Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Duncan Keith gradually taking on more of the load – at the most important points of the games – from Chris Pronger, Dan Boyle and, at times, Scott Niedermayer.
Message: Pedigree, experience and past performance are out the window in favor of the here and now.
If Team Canada needed urgency, a do-or-die game against Russia should have done it. But in case it didn’t, Babcock’s style created urgency; urgency in that those who want to play the most must perform the best, no matter the game. If you don’t, you won’t play.
And that’s what a good coach must do: find his team’s buttons and push them. Babcock has done just that. And by the looks of it, there isn’t an off button.
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