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Team Canada looking for more offence on big ice

SOCHI, Russia — No matter which 13 forwards Team Canada dresses for its Olympic quarter-final, they’ve combined to score well over 300 goals in the NHL this season.

No team in Sochi features that kind of scoring depth, and yet one concern going into Wednesday’s game against Latvia is a lack of offence up front. As this becomes a single-elimination tournament, Canada doesn’t need 300 goals.

“We just need one more than the other team,” Babcock said.

Getting that one big, important goal could make or break Canada moving forward. As the preliminary-round game against Finland showed, offence can be tough to come by on the wider international ice surface, especially against well-structured European opponents.

Finding a way to get to the middle of the ice and closer to the net was a major emphasis in practice Tuesday because it could be the difference between reaching the semifinals and going home earlier than anyone expected.

“You watch our games and we’ve been on the outside a lot,” said winger Corey Perry, who will have a new linemate in Jamie Benn between him and Ryan Getzlaf. “To get shots to the net, to get second opportunities, that’s what the three of us are going to do. We’re three big men and we can get to the middle of the ice. That’s kind of what Coach Babcock was addressing to us today is getting to the middle, getting those second opportunities and shoot the puck.”

For all the talk about the big ice in advance of this tournament, four years removed from Vancouver where games were played on NHL-sized rinks, it has made a difference — but not the way some figured.

Just because there’s more space doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more room to get creative offensively.

“People make a big deal of the big ice, they think it’s going to be a more offensive game, and it’s kind of the opposite because all the extra room’s on the oustide of the rink,” smooth-skating defenceman Jay Bouwmeester said. “People act surprised all the time, but all these tournaments are usually the same: low-scoring games and tight defence.”

The Canadians broke out with six goals against Austria after scoring three in the opener against Norway, but it was the preliminary-round finale against Finland that taught them a lesson. Holding onto the puck so much in the offensive zone paved the way for plenty of shots, but it was like a basketball team trying to shoot just from the outside. With a rink that’s 15 feet wider, it’s much more difficult to get quality scoring chances from the boards.

“You’re a long ways from the net when you’re hanging out on the wall,” said Jeff Carter, who leads all Canadian forwards with three goals. “We talked about that and maybe trying to shrink the ice a little bit and getting to the (faceoff)-dot lines and just kind of make it feel more like an NHL-size rink.”

Centre Jonathan Toews likened it to another sport.

“I almost like to say it’s comparable to soccer, almost, because the game feels very neutral,” Toews said. “If you don’t have anything, you don’t want to give the puck up. It’s a lot of circling back, a lot of regrouping.”

Regrouping isn’t a good pattern to follow for a team that’s capable of grinding teams down by pushing the pace and flying up the ice.

“We got size and speed,” defenceman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We’re too big and strong to be getting pushed outside.”

Except so far they have been.

Coaching consultant Ralph Krueger forecasted last month that it would be important to be “very Canadian” at these Games despite some different European styles on the other side. What he meant by that was not to get caught up with what opponents did with the extra 15 feet but try to find something that works for this talented bunch.

With Babcock barking orders, players got to work on that Tuesday, practising give-and-go moves at the blue-line that helped gain the zone closer to the middle of the ice and cycle plays that included one trailing forward cutting to the high slot for a quick pass. Full-speed portions of practice simulated what Canada wants to do, though it’s hard to replicate the kind of tight, defensive structure a lot of teams have been employing.

 
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