Canada's challenge: Finding chemistry
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The concern among the Team Canada ranks heading into these Olympic Games was that only one practice wasn't a whole lot of time to foster chemistry among some players who have never played a game together.
Luckily for Canada, it had a bonus practice in what also doubled as its Olympic opener Tuesday night, an 8-0 thrashing of hockey minnow Norway. The game won't impress anyone, but it nevertheless might prove quite useful.
The battle for Team Canada in these tournaments, more than for any other country, is building chemistry. By virtue of picking from the largest player pool in the world, the downside for Canada is many different players end up getting their turn on the international stage. Unlike countries where the core largely stays the same for a decade, the turnover is always fast and furious for Canada, as the depth of the elite player pool produces a highly competitive battle for jobs.
Case in point: Only five skaters and two goalies are back from the 23-man roster at the 2006 Torino Olympics.
The challenge now is to quickly get all these players feeling as if they've been teammates for years as opposed to days.
"We had four days in Calgary [at the summer camp], and that's it," Nash said after Tuesday's rout. "But I think we complement each other's game. Hopefully we get better with each game."
Much like the rest of their team, the Nash-Crosby pairing looked more comfortable as the game went on.
"Just playing together is the only way, that's why you have to make the most out of practice," Crosby said of developing a rapport with his linemates.
How do make up for lost time? You communicate. One could see Nash and Crosby talking to each other constantly on the bench during the game, and apparently even more so in the dressing room.
"In-between periods is big, always trying to figure each other out and ask as many questions as possible," Nash said.
It's all in the name of fast-forwarding the process. At the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the Canadians just barely figured it out in time; in Italy four years later, they didn't come close.
"We're in our infancy right now and trying to find ourselves and the chemistry and line combinations and matchups," veteran blueliner Chris Pronger said. "It's pretty early."
Canada coach Mike Babcock twice mentioned in his postgame news conference that his team was a "work of progress," a point underlined by his tinkering with the lines. Patrice Bergeron opened the Olympics with the much-desired slot alongside Nash and Crosby, but he was on the fourth line early in the second period after being replaced by veteran winger Jarome Iginla. Given the seven-point night from the Nash-Crosby-Iginla combo, one suspects the Bergeron experiment on the top line is over. Maybe Babcock simply wanted to light a fire under Iginla with the fourth-line assignment early on.
"I think it's real important to have a whole bunch of hungry players here," Babcock said. "It's interesting how all the guys that are real hungry played so well. Iggy would be another one. Maybe that's just some information for the coach there."
The Crosby-Iginla pairing didn't seem that natural at orientation camp, but how much can one really tell from scrimmages? On Tuesday night, Crosby the playmaker and Iginla the finisher seemed to click just fine, thank you.
"He finds those areas to get shots off, and when he does, he's really dangerous," Crosby said of Iginla.
Fans of the Flames have lived far too long with Iginla's not getting an adequate center to play with him. At least they'll see what it's like for two weeks.
"It's pretty exciting to play with Sid," Iginla said. "Every pass is in your wheelhouse, the saucers land right on your stick. Obviously, he's a very dynamic player."
Not surprisingly, the only forward line truly in sync in a scoreless first period was the San Jose Sharks' trio of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. Just game No. 63 of the season for those three. That was the obvious benefit of putting the whole San Jose line on the team: instant chemistry. On one second-period play, Marleau had his back to his linemates, but flipped a blind backhand pass right to the blade of Heatley after the latter had yelled over to him.
Anaheim Ducks linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry bring a similar dynamic to the table, but they had moments of hesitation with new linemate Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. Once those three figure it out, watch out; talk about size and skill. Babcock rotated four skaters on the fourth line: Jonathan Toews always at center, with Brenden Morrow, Mike Richards and Bergeron on the wings. Any combination of those four produced a decent output. That's encouraging if you're Babcock.
But the hope if you're Babcock is the learning curve is quick.
"The last time the Canadian team won the Olympics, they lost to Sweden," Babcock said. "That was the adversity they needed to make everyone understand how tough every game is going to be. Hopefully we won't need that adversity."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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