Team Canada’s performance in its 2014 Winter Olympic opener was not nearly as dominant as the Americans’ was in theirs, but it was still enough to put away an overachieving Norway squad 3-1 Thursday in Sochi.
The underdog Norwegians, who have not won a game in the Olympics since 1994 and were blown out 8-0 by Canada four years ago in Vancouver, matched Canada step-for-step in the first period, holding the defending gold medalists scoreless for more than 26 minutes.
With Canada’s stud top lines failing to put the puck in the net — Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter, in particular, had two or three clear chances in front of Norway goalie Lars Haugen that he failed to capitalize on — it was coach Mike Babcock’s fourth line of Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares and Jamie Benn that finally got things going offensively.
Canada’s stockpile of world-class talent down the middle forced Bergeron, a longtime Boston Bruins center, over to the wing for the majority of the game. It’s a position Bergeron rarely — if ever — plays in the NHL, but he handled the transition with ease, and his line with Tavares, the New York Islanders’ star center, and Benn, a top-line winger for the Dallas Stars, was Canada’s most productive by far.
Bergeron assisted on the game’s first goal — a rocket from the blue line by Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber early in the second that Benn set up by drawing a penalty behind the net — and also fed Benn with a beautiful cross-ice pass to put Canada up 2-0 later in the period.
The Bruins’ lone representative on Team Canada finished with two assists, two shots on goal and a plus-2 rating.
“Whatever it takes, right?” Bergeron told NBC’s Pierre McGuire after the game. “I’m just happy to be here, trying to chip in any way I can. Whether it’s the right side, the left side, it doesn’t matter to me.
“[Benn and Tavares are] just great players. They’re two players that are creating a lot of chances off of their forecheck, but also with their vision. I’m just trying to get open for that, and also trying to feed them, because obviously they have that great shot.”
It seemed to take the Canadians a while to get comfortable both with each other and with the Olympic-sized ice sheet, leading to a number of errant passes and failures to keep the puck in the offensive zone. The fearless and physical play of the Norwegian squad also played a role in Canada’s discombobulation, though. Norway’s roster includes just one current NHL player (New York Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello), but the Norwegians were not afraid to throw their bodies around at Canada’s collection of All-Stars, with captain Ole-Kristian Tollefsen dishing out a few especially nice hits.
After holding a slim 9-8 edge in shots at the end of a scoreless first period, Canada dominated the second, outshooting Norway 14-2 and building a 2-0 lead. Mathis Olimb cut that deficit to one when Carey Price misplayed the puck behind the Canada net just 22 seconds into the third, but Kings defenseman Drew Doughty deftly stickhandled through the Norway defense and beat Haugen less than two minutes later to effectively put the game out of reach.
Haugen, who plays in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League, put on an impressive performance in net with 30 saves, while Price needed just 15 in the win.
“It’s to be expected a little bit,” Bergeron said of his team’s sluggish first period. “We’re trying to get to know the guys on the ice and get to know each other, chemistry-wise. But I thought we kept improving throughout the game. Our second and third [period] was a lot better, and we have to be even better starting [Friday].”
Canada faces another team that is not expected to be in medal contention, Austria, on Friday before concluding preliminary-round play Sunday against Tuukka Rask and a potent Finland squad.
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