INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA—When Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team pulled up stakes on its Latvian training camp and headed for South Korea last week, maybe the biggest question that surrounded the squad involved goal scoring.
As in: Does anyone on this team possess notable expertise in this indispensible skill?
It remains a wholly legitimate question. This is a team, after all, whose most prolific goal scorer — as measured by career NHL output — is Derek Roy. Roy’s hottest season saw him score 32 goals way back in 2007-08. In other words, he’s the lone 30-goal season guy in the group — and he managed the feat a decade ago. So when Canada beat both Latvia and Belarus by the identically un-electric scores of 2-0 in preliminary games — that’d be the same Latvia and Belarus that failed to qualify for this Olympic tournament on account of being, um, not good enough — it was fair to wonder where the Canadian goals might come from.
Monday’s 4-1 pre-tournament win over Sweden — the team’s last tune-up before it opens group-stage play with a game against Switzerland Thursday — probably didn’t prove much. But at least it offered some evidence that the team’s pre-tournament vow to “score by committee” might, at least on some nights, prove do-able.
Down 1-0 until late in a first period that saw the Swedes carry the play with crisp breakouts and forceful net drives, they Canadians pushed back with an almost impossibly balanced attack. They got a goal from each of their top three forward lines — Christian Thomas, Rene Bourque and Wojtek Wolski doing the damage. They got a goal from their defence corps, with Mat Robinson providing the power-play net presence.
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And those goal scorers had plenty of help en route to the net. It was starting goaltender Ben Scrivens who keyed Robinson’s goal, making a strong save on a partial breakaway by fellow ex-Maple Leaf Viktor Stalberg to send the play the other way. It was Mason Raymond, another former Toronto NHLer, who assisted on both Robinson’s goal and Thomas’s — the latter a breakaway that beat Swedish starter — and Mike Babcock castoff — Jhonas Enroth. And it was Bourque who provided the game’s most memorable moment of physicality, a mid-second-period flattening of defenceman Carl Klingberg that coincided with a turn in play that favoured the eventual winners.
Canada’s fourth-liners didn’t score, but they got noticed. Max Lapierre for absorbing a penalty-kill shot block or two, and for missing on an empty-net goal with a shot from just over centre that rolled wide; Rob Klinkhammer for grinding a Swede’s head into the ice in a late-game post-whistle scrum with tempers flaring.
It was gritty, occasionally dirty stuff for a Monday afternoon in South Korea. And let’s face it: If the gifted brothers of the NHL players’ union would have been in-country for the coming fortnight, we probably wouldn’t have seen them doing such dastardly battle in the same setting. If this is how non-NHL Olympic hockey is going to be played, complete with roughly equal doses of mistakes and maliciousness, then the Olympic men’s hockey tournament has a chance to be utterly riveting.
“I think as Canadians, the way we play hockey — that’s how we win,” Bourque said. “We play tough. We play hard-to-play-against. We might not have the most skill on our team, so that’s how we’ll need to beat teams. On the forecheck, finishing checks. Being tough in front of the net, clearing the crease. Open-ice hits. That’s the way we’re going to get under teams’ skin.”
And that’s the way they’ll probably need to score: Creating offence through defence, or offence via physical menace.
“A couple of big penalty kills, a couple of big hits, a couple of big goals — that’s the way we need to play,” Bourque said. “We’re going to score by committee. We don’t have a game-breaker you can rely on every game. But we have a lot of good players. And if we’re going to be successful moving forward, we need all our lines chipping in.”
This was by no means a walkover. Canada needed to kill 3:18 worth of 5-on-3 short-handed time. And it needed multiple big saves from both Scrivens, who played the first two periods, and Kevin Poulin, who was impressively poised in his 20 minutes of shutout action, including the final six or so minutes of regulation that saw Sweden’s goaltender pulled and a near-continuous stream of Swedish pushes into the dirty areas.
But it was testier than you might have expected given the circumstances — a neutral-site game with no technical stakes played before a crowd estimated at a couple of thousand at a rink normally home to the Asia League’s Daemyung Killer Whales (head coach Kevin Constantine, of 1990s NHL fame). Even Rasmus Dahlin, the 17-year-old Swedish defenceman who is expected to go No. 1 overall in June’s NHL draft, got caught up in the maelstrom, taking an early high-sticking penalty with Canadian forechecker Wolski bearing down.
“It was great, it was exactly what both sides needed and wanted,” said Chris Kelly, the Canadian captain. “We’re only a few days away before the tournament starts. I think the last thing you want is to play a game that feels meaningless to both sides.”
Actually, the last thing the Canadians wanted was another pre-competition warm-up in which the offence simply wouldn’t come.
Now on to the next challenge: Scoring under actual pressure.
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–Credit: TORONTO STAR