Team Canada’s 5 most concerning questions after 2 games in Sochi

Roberto Luongo, Team Canada.

Robert Luongo, Team Canada. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

With two games in the history books, Team Canada has yet to be tested in Sochi. Today, defending bronze medalling Finland is on the docket in what will be Canada’s one and only real challenge before the elimination games begin in Sochi this coming Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on final group standings.

A 3-1 win over Norway, followed by a 6-0 pummelling of Austria, stand as solid evidence that the 2014 edition of Team Canada is not starved for offence, at least not against the lesser nations that stymied Canada when the Olympics were last contested on international sized ice back at the 2006 Games in Turin.

This current Canadian group is a stockpile of the NHL’s top players at every position, but most notably up front and on defence. Canada’s goaltending ain’t too shabby either, however, the rest of the world has long caught up between the pipes.

Five questions concerning Team Canada in lead up to its final round robin game against Finland:

1. Who’s the starting goaltender?

Montreal Canadiens netminder Carey Price got the nod in Canada’s first game against Norway and he did what he had to do; he stopped all but one puck thrown his way en route to a 3-1 win that flatters the Norwegians.

It was a puck handling miscue by Price that led to Norway’s lone goal scored against Canada, however, playing the puck is generally a strength of the Canadiens’ keeper. In the international game goalies are free to leave their crease and play pucks dumped into the corners or wrapped around the boards. Unlike the NHL brand, at the Olympics there is no trapezoid to restrain goaltenders from retrieving dump ins as they see fit. Because Price is so talented and comfortable outside the confines of the blue paint porch in front of his net, there is a strong argument for him to be the man Team Canada entrusts with last line of defence duties in the elimination round. Not to mention, he’s a great goalie.

Roberto Luongo, the defending goal medalling goaltender from Vancouver 2010, suited up against Austria in the Canadian’s second contest. He was strong when called upon, which was more often than Price the day prior, but not often enough to crown him hero. Luongo did his job; he stopped all the pucks that Austria threw at him, allowing Canada’s 6 goals tallied to stand alone on the final scoreboard. Luongo doesn’t play the puck as well as Price, assuming that’s even important to Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock. That being said, Luongo has Price beat in experience. The Canucks starter is participating in his third Olympics for Team Canada, and has played in the Stanley Cup finals, where he earned two shutouts in a 7 game series against the eventual Cup champion Boston Bruins back in 2011.

Babcock has not announced his starter for Sunday’s game against the Finns, but be sure, the goalie who gets the nod today will be expected to patrol Canada’s net for the rest of the tournament, unless he performs poorly against Finland.

2. Who are Crosby’s wingers?

Team Canada’s decision to select Pittsburgh Penguin winger Chris Kunitz to its final roster was met with criticism from fans who believe the un-drafted native of Regina, Saskatchewan, is merely a product of his environment. Furthermore, it is believed that Kunitz is producing consistent offence in the NHL because he skates a regular shift with the world’s best hockey player, Sidney Crosby. After two games in Sochi against minimal competition the Crosby-Kunitz experiment has failed to immediately pay off with goals. Kunitz has 0 points and is the only member of Team Canada with a minus rating in the tournament. After two games played Sid has only tallied one point, an assist on Jeff Carter’s first of three goals against the Austrians.

Babcock can decide to be patient with the Crosby-Kunitz combo or he can give one of Canada’s other great forwards the opportunity to flank 87 on the left wing. The decision is not as easy as it seems to anyone who bases performance strictly on numbers. The numbers speak clearly: Crosby and Kunitz ain’t working, yet. That being said, the existing chemistry between two-thirds of Pittsburgh’s top unit could come in handy in a key moment down the road, when the competition becomes tougher, and existing familiarity could serve as an asset. Remember, it was regular Anaheim linemates Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf who came through in the clutch for several goals in Canada’s elimination games in Vancouver.

Team Canada went a little off the board with the Kunitz selection, leaving at home elite NHLers like Eric Staal and Claude Giroux, both of whom would’ve been no-brainers to make the team if they played on the Penguins.

To the dismay of some Canadians, not only is Kunitz unjustly in Sochi instead of obvious talents who didn’t make the cut, he is also occupying a spot on Team Canada’s number one power play unit while Conn Smythe winners and Hart trophy nominees watch from the sidelines. With the upmost respect for Chris Kunitz, who is a very good hockey player in the NHL and a two-time Stanley Cup champion, his name does not come to mind when pondering who Canada’s five best guns are; the group of top Canadian players who are capable of burying an important goal with the man advantage. In Kunitz’s defence, he has as much heart and passion as any player in the tournament. If he remains on Crosby’s wing, it would be a great story should he play hero at some point in the tournament.

Babcock will need to decide quickly if Kunitz’s play through two games is enough to warrant his continuation as the left winger on the most pressure laden line in hockey; left wing on the world’s best hockey player’s line; a member of the defending Olympic champions’ number one scoring line and top power play unit. Today against Finland the picture will become clearer. In other words, the pressure is on Chris Kunitz to make an impact in some way, even if it’s just a tenacious performance, that would be more than we’ve seen thus far from the controversial, highly debated, appointed go-to-guy on the world’s most decorated hockey roster.

3. With Patrick Sharp re-entering Team Canada’s lineup, who will be scratched?

Babcock healthy-scratched forward Patrick Sharp for Canada’s second game in Sochi. Afterward, the coach admitted that Sharp will be back in the lineup against Finland, meaning one forward who played against the Austrians will not participate in Canada’s final preliminary round contest. The game’s winner will earn a bye to the quarterfinals.

Canada’s most consistent, and arguably its most dangerous line in Sochi, has been the combination of John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron and Jamie Benn. It’s safe to say those three will dress against the Finns.

Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews were the heroes in Vancouver and their resumes are superior to most in hockey, including several members of the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team. There is no chance either is healthy scratched in Sochi, or ever, in any hockey game ever played at any time. So they’re safe.

Getzlaf and Perry will play against Finland, as well. They’ve produced in Sochi, they were great in Vancouver, and both are having spectacular NHL seasons. Not to mention, they have chemistry together.

Jeff Carter scored a hat trick against Austria. Even though all he did was bury some freebies against a weak opponent, a trick is a trick. It’s highly unlikely Carter’s reward for scoring thrice against Austria is a seat in the press box.

The remaining forward group is: Patrick Marleau, Martin St. Louis, Matt Duchene, Rick Nash and Chris Kunitz. It is extremely likely one of these five will come out in order to make room for the return of Patrick Sharp.

Marleau won a gold medal for Canada in 2010. His experience is an asset. On top of that, he is a relied upon penalty killer and versatile two-way winger who can slide up and down the lineup. In other words, he is very similar to Patrick Sharp. While at first glance it may be perceived that Marleau and Sharp are redundant because of their similarities; the truth is, their strengths are so beneficial that it makes sense to incorporate both in Canada’s lineup moving forward.

Martin St. Louis has had good and bad moments thus far in Sochi. The last minute addition is an obvious talent with the puck, however, his first step is not what it used to be, and it shows. There have been plays where the Bolts captain has looked a step behind the pace. Conversely, he has also had excellent moments with the puck that have failed to translate to goals. But with Marty, there is always a threat that he can make something out of nothing offensively. If Babcock is playing the averages, St. Louis probably wears a suit during today’s game. However, if the belief in St. Louis’ ability to be a game breaker is prevalent, deservedly so, expect number 26 to dress again for the defending champs.

Matt Duchene did not play in Canada’s first game against Norway. Called upon to provide Canada with a boost of speed against the Austrians, Duchene did just that. His speed and skill were evident regularly throughout Canada’s dominant second game win. I’d imagine that sitting Duchene again would be a tough call for Babcock. But then again, there are no easy lineup decisions with a roster as strong as Team Canada’s. All things considered, on the big sheet, speed and youthful enthusiasm are required, and Duchene provides both in spades.

Rick Nash was superb in Vancouver. In fact, every time he dawns Canadian red (or black) he seems to play his best hockey. And the Rangers sniper is a lethally rare concoction of speed, size and skill that can trouble opponents on the big ice sheet. Many wondered why he made Team Canada after an injury riddled beginning to the NHL schedule, but the truth is: Nash is unstoppable at times; in his greatest moments. He has great moments. Knowing what he’s capable of makes him as dangerous a player as anyone in the tournament; Canada’s Alex Semin.

And then there’s Kunitz. Is he a top line player or press box placement? It could be possible that it’s one or the other for Chris. We’ll find out shortly.

4. P. K. Subban: is he in or out?

P. K. Subban’s biggest flaw is not his alleged defensive deficiencies, it is that he shoots right on a team that is absolutely stacked on the right side. Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Alex Pietrangelo form a world-class trio of right-handed defencemen, and in order for Subban to play a regular shift for Team Canada in Sochi he’ll need to pass one of them on the depth chart. Good luck.

If Canada’s head coach Mike Babcock is willing to use a righty on the left side, that changes everything for P. K.. Subban is an offensive threat who could substantially help Canada generate offence from the defence. In international hockey, an offensive blue line is a huge asset, one that is conducive with winning games. The argument for Subban is a strong one because of his tremendous offensive instincts, but it falls short every time because Babcock insists on playing a lefty with a righty throughout his defence pairings. Subban seems to be the odd man out. That could change, though.

5. Can Canada win another gold medal?

Of course they can. Of all the nations vying for Olympic hockey gold, Team Canada is by far the best on paper. Luckily for everyone else, having the best roster doesn’t always translate to having the best team. Sure, Team USA and Russia look great, especially after that epic they played yesterday at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. However, both nations fail to match Canada’s depth at extremely important positions like centre and defence. Team Canada may not win gold in Sochi. They may not, but they probably should.