MONTREAL – They may not be hosting the world this time around, but as reigning Olympic gold medalists, Team Canada won’t be under any less pressure to reach the top of the podium when they arrive in Sochi. Luckily, they’ll be able to count on the services of a few players who know a thing or two about performing on the big stage.
Growing up in Canada, it’s no secret there’s only one acceptable color when it comes to bringing home medals on the ice. Having spent the last seven and four years, respectively, thriving under the spotlight in Montreal, Carey Price and P.K. Subban have spent their entire NHL careers preparing to be at their best when the stakes are the highest.
“Pressure simply means you have a chance,” explained Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock, who will look to lead Canada to back-to-back gold medals for the first time since 1952. “If your team is no good, when you go to the Olympic Games, there’s no pressure. You can decide what you want.”
Thanks to Detroit’s move into the Eastern Conference in 2013-14, Babcock has already had a chance to do some extra pre-scouting on two of his Olympic rookies ahead of the opening puck drop against Norway on Feb. 13. Counting the 2013 Norris Trophy winner and a three-time All-Star in Price among his stable of Canadian superstars heading into the two-week tournament, the Red Wings head coach – and former McGill Redmen captain – knows exactly what to expect from the Habs duo.
“They both have elite skill sets. Carey is having himself a heck of a year. He’s an elite skater, a big body guy, he plays the puck well, and he’s soft so when the puck hits him it sticks to him,” praised Babcock, who wouldn’t tip his hand regarding which netminder he has penciled in to start between the pipes between Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith. “He got himself off to a great start this year and he’s a big part of the reason the Canadiens are having so much success.
“And P.K. is known for being a guy who is dangerous offensively and has a real weapon for a shot,” he added of the Canadiens’ leading scorer, who is tied with Shea Weber among all Canadian-born defensemen for the most power play points in the league. “Now it’s just a matter of us as a coaching staff putting together a group we feel gives us the best chance to succeed.”
In some countries, playing in the NHL and holding the right passport is a pipeline to a starring role in the Olympics; in Canada that’s not exactly the case. With enough elite players to ice two squads competitive enough to compete for a podium position, Canada will likely have at least one Stanley Cup champion, major NHL award winner or reigning gold medalist watching from the pressbox every night.
“The situation is we have three goaltenders, eight D and 14 forwards and at least one of them in all those positions is not going to dress,” mentioned Babcock, whose 25-man roster will be pared down to 21 players in uniform for each game. “But you have to remember that the team is a work in progress. For example, Patrice Bergeron was [Sidney] Crosby’s right winger at the start of the tournament in 2010 and at the end he hardly played. Are the players who aren’t dressed going to be the same throughout the tournament? We’re going to have to watch and see and make decisions. The team that grows together and gets better each and every day in the end is the team that’s going to win the tournament.”
With an embarrassment of riches at every position on the depth chart, Babcock has plenty of weapons to choose from in his arsenal, and the way they spent the first half of the NHL season auditioning for plum roles hasn’t made the Canadian coach’s job any easier.
“They’ve earned my trust by how they’ve played all year with their own teams, not by what they’re going to do in a short period of time as much,” explained the 2008 Stanley Cup champion, who is bringing five of the NHL’s Top 10 leading scorers with him to Sochi. “Obviously we follow these players very closely so we have a very good handle on what they’ve done. They wouldn’t have made the team if they hadn’t have done some positive things.”
Outpacing his padded competition by posting four shutouts and a .925 save percentage through 48 starts this season, Price has made a strong case to earn the leading role in his Olympic debut. While he may not have previous Olympic pedigree to call on, Price is no stranger to the international scene, having helped Team Canada win gold at the 2007 World Juniors, earning Tournament MVP honors in the process.
“I think he’s always been one of those guys who likes that situation,” explained Jonathan Toews, who was named to the 2007 WJC tournament All-Star team along with Price and will serve as an assistant captain in Sochi. “We have tremendous confidence in the goalies that were chosen and their experience and their ability to play under that pressure. I think Carey’s one of those guys that with his consistent ability, we already know he’ll do the job, but he’s the type of guy who’s going to raise it up another level at the Olympics.”
Having logged heavy minutes for the Habs all season, racking up 39 points and a plus-6 differential in his fourth full NHL campaign, Subban could also find himself making his mark on Olympic-sized ice when the puck drops against the Norwegians. Either way, Babcock will be looking for all 25 of his Olympians to contribute to the team’s success.
“This event is not about Steve Yzerman or Mike Babcock or P.K. Subban or Carey Price; it’s about Canada,” underlined Babcock. “Once you put your Canadian uniform on, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to help the team.
“Your job as a player is to find your game within our game. It’s our job as coaches to find situations where you can help the team and then we’ll just go from there,” he added. “We’re going to try to get them to maximize their skills and figure out their game within our game. Are there going to be bumps in the road? I sure hope so, because that adversity ends up leading to championships.”
Maybe even those of the back-to-back variety.
Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com.
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