THN in Sochi: Believe it or not, Chris Kunitz back on top line

Ken Campbell
Crosby and Kunitz

SOCHI – Who knows what Mike Babcock is thinking right now? But sit tight and get ready for this. If you can believe it, Chris Kunitz has worked his way back up to Canada’s top line.

Well, using the term ‘worked’ might be gilding the lily just a little bit. Perhaps reuniting Kunitz with Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron on the top line is just a case of Babcock throwing up his hands and deferring to Crosby’s preference of wingers. Or it might be a case that he’s so impressed with Jamie Benn, and he should be, that he sees Benn as the guy who can revive the second line.

That’s sure what it looks like with Benn coming off Crosby’s line and moving to the wing with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. That tandem performs magic in Anaheim, but has just one goal in the Olympics, despite having quite a few good looks.

“We thought we had a real good game out of Benn, Bergeron and Crosby last game,” Babcock said. “We just feel we need Getzie’s line to be good as well, so we’re just trying to get everyone going as best we can.”

Babcock is seeing in Kunitz what the eyes of your trusty correspondent have failed to see so far. It’s true that Kunitz is dogged in his determination for the puck and he is very responsible defensively. He tracks the puck back defensively as well as anyone on this team. But as far as any of that resulting in a score sheet contribution, it has been a whole lot of bupkis. How Kunitz draws the first line assignment while Martin St-Louis (likely) sits in the stands in dress clothes is an enduring mystery.

Chances are, the Canadians will face Switzerland in the quarterfinal game, which means they’ll play a team that is almost a carbon copy of the Finnish team they needed overtime to defeat in the last game of the preliminary round. (By the way, Finland has a population of about five million people and 2.1 million of them watched that game. Think Canada has the market cornered on hockey zealousness?)

The Swiss will try to push the Canadians to the outside portions of the rink, the same way the Finns did. One thing that is clear is that these European teams have the big ice mastered. They’re content to let NHL players cycle the puck constantly outside the faceoff dots knowing full well that they’re going to accomplish next to nothing by doing so. They clog up the area between the dots with bodies, which makes it difficult to get anything through. So it’s up to the best players in the world to make their way through that mess and get some quality scoring chances.

“We have to get inside, there’s no question about it,” Babcock said. “I’m not so sure that’s off the entry as it is getting people and pucks to the paint. We had good chances last game…but we feel we could use some more second chances so we spent some time on that (in practice) today.”

It’s pretty basic really. These guys are going to have to start going to the net with more gumption. Having the puck on your stick for three quarters of the game isn’t going to result in anything if you don’t take it to a part of the ice where you’re going to be dangerous with it. If you have the biggest and strongest athletes in the tournament, why not use that to your advantage? Canada has had exactly four power plays so far in the tournament, in part because the forwards have not been assertive enough in the offensive zone. You draw penalties by creating offensive chances.

“We’ve spent a half a week practicing (the power play) and you wonder how come you’re spending so much time preparing for them when they never come,” said Babcock, whose team is 1-for-4 on the power play. “We talked about that as a coaching staff a number of times. But teams are disciplined and the game is going that way, so we just have to find a way to score.”

That will not be easy against a goaltender who has yet to surrender a goal in this tournament. Jonas Hiller is in some kind of zone right now and if Canada sits back and doesn’t pepper him with a ton of shots, it’s courting disaster. Already, the Canadian teams is talking about winning a 1-0 or 2-1 game against the Swiss, if they get by Latvia in their qualifier game as expected. Yes, against the Swiss. God forbid they’d want to pump five or six past them.

At the other end of the ice, it will be Carey Price in goal for Canada. He has been very good in the tournament, with the only two goals that have been scored on him coming on deflected pucks. Price has done a good job of keeping his goals focused and short term this season and the Olympics are no exception. As for the battle with Hiller, he’s not terribly concerned on who’s at the other end of the ice.

“He’s not going to be scoring on me, so I can’t think about what he’s doing,” Price said. “The other guy’s not dangerous. You’ve got to worry about focusing on what you need to do.”