SOCHI, Russia – Team Canada has a stated goal of inching forward with every day, game and practice of this concise two-week Olympic tournament. And, though it was against an overmatched Austrian opponent on Friday evening, there was obvious progression, albeit with a hiccup or two, from the Canadians at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
"This tournament, in my opinion, is about getting better each and every game," said head coach Mike Babcock after a 6-0 win, which followed a 3-1 victory over Norway on Thursday. "And as long as we can do that, we'll have an opportunity."
Tinkering here and there with a supremely talented lineup, Babcock saw a crisper, faster, and much more emphatic performance against the Austrians, one that saw Jeff Carter – a notably quiet presence in the opener – explode for three goals and Roberto Luongo pitch a 23-save shutout.
Incremental improvements remain the goal with a whole lot of questions yet to be answered, decisions still to be made.
"I think we were better tonight than we were [against Norway]," said Babcock. "I thought we moved the puck better. I thought we skated better. [But] we can be way better. We understand that."
These early exhibitions have offered (and will continue to offer on Sunday against Finland) the Canadian coaching staff an opportunity to assess the roster and ascertain what works and what doesn't and then suitably move forward. If Chris Kunitz
is not the answer alongside Sidney Crosby
for instance, Babcock and the coaching staff are out to determine, in rapid order, who might be. Jeff Carter
did little there in the opener, but teamed with Jonathan Toews
and Patrick Marleau
in limited ice against the Austrians – he was the 13th forward at the game's outset – and struck for three goals.
"It's going to get better and better," said Carter, who actually played just under nine minutes, the fewest of any Canadian. "We talked about that. I think guys were a little more comfortable second game in. Legs were under us, and guys felt pretty good, looked good."
Plugging Matt Duchene and P.K. Subban into the lineup after a healthy absence for both in the opener, Babcock experimented with a variety of combinations throughout the night eventually landing Carter with Toews and Marleau, a recipe that sparked some definite magic. Marty St. Louis, the supposed 14th forward against Norway, teamed with Crosby and Kunitz against the Austrians and offered hints of chemistry in just under 13 minutes. Whether it was enough to stick with the team's best player remains to be seen.
"I found myself in some holes there where I got some opportunity but they just didn't go in," said St. Louis, who fired four shots on goal.
"We've got to get the lines to go the best way they can," Babcock said, describing the lineup decisions, which included scratching Patrick Sharp and Dan Hamhuis, as "ridiculous" especially in the case of Sharp. Both will return to the line-up against Finland on Sunday.
Combinations aside, the Canadian coach is also rapidly gathering information about his players, ascertaining which individuals offer the most toward a successful end product. Can Subban, for instance, offer a trustworthy presence if inserted into the lineup? Does Hamhuis offer greater stability, if far less in the game-breaking department? Which players can maximize ice-time that is far below what they would generally gather as stars for their respective NHL teams? Which players are best adapting to a squished defensive zone?
"I'm just looking for details," Babcock said. "Who can I trust, and who can you not, and how are we going to win the games as they get harder? And this tournament its gets harder and harder, as you know. It's a detail tournament. It's a one-goal game, every single time, so it's going to be about playing well without the puck."
And then there's the matter of goaltending.
Carey Price won the opener with a sturdy performance against the Norwegians, but Luongo was perfect against the Austrians. One has enjoyed a better NHL regular season, but is also on the Olympic stage for the first time. The other helped capture gold in Vancouver.
Babcock wouldn't tip his hand in either direction.
"I don't know and it doesn't really matter," said Luongo of the plan afterward. "We're not here for personal agendas. We're here to play for our country. Whether it's me or Carey, it's not a big deal. I'll be ready either way."
Just as the coaches search for the right recipes so too do the players.
For them it's about familiarity, both with a cavalry of new teammates and a notably larger ice surface, one that demands adjustment in all three zones and certainly on special teams. Four pre-tournament on-ice sessions helped, but every shift of game-action helps immeasurably more.
"We're feeling like we're getting better each and every shift, every period," said Patrick Marleau, who had three assists alongside Carter and Toews. "That's what our goal is to keep getting better every team we get our skates on the ice."
The best opportunity at assessment awaits against Finland. Though missing the likes of Mikko Koivu, Saku Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, the Finns still boast a steady group of NHL talent, a reliable system, and the best trio of netminding the tournament has to offer.
"There's great teams here,” said Babcock. "It's a fine, fine line. I tell people this all the time, whether it's a Stanley Cup or a bantam triple-A championship or an Olympic gold medal, you've got to line up the moon and the stars going into it. It just doesn't happen. And so all we can do is continue to work on our execution and our preparation and giving everyone the best opportunity to succeed. That's what we're going to do."