Score Strip

Canada's Olympic path gets tougher after needing overtime to beat Finland

The Canadian Press
Canada defenceman Drew Doughty celebrates his goal against Finland during overtime preliminary hockey action at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia on Sunday, February 16, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
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SOCHI, Russia - Team Canada coach Mike Babcock understood that beating Finland in regulation would have meant a favourable quarter-final matchup against either Slovenia or Austria, and he didn't take too kindly to being asked if he would have preferred that.

Not long after needing overtime to beat Finland 2-1 Sunday night at Bolshoy Ice Dome, Babcock leaned into the microphone and sharpened his tone.

"Do you think we didn't try to do that?" he said. "They tried to win, we tried to win."

Babcock looked over at Finnish coach Erkka Westerlund and asked: "You were trying to win, weren't you?"

Westerlund replied simply: "Yes. Congratulations."

Canada could be congratulated on winning the game on Drew Doughty's goal 2:32 into OT and on finishing atop Group B with eight points. But by failing to win in regulation, the Canadians made their path to a second straight gold medal that much more difficult, as they'll face either stingy Switzerland or plucky Latvia in the quarter-final round Wednesday.

"I think it's hokey when you're trying to pick your spots and trying to avoid teams," Babcock said. "You've got to beat the best to be the best. We came here to be tested, not not to be tested. To win an Olympic gold medal, you should have to battle incredibly hard to make that happen."

As players stepped off the ice, most didn't know what matchup they were getting next. Forward Matt Duchene said upon hearing it would be Switzerland or Latvia, "That's news to me," and Doughty even talked about worrying about that "when we find out who our opponent is."

"Just strictly play the game," said Doughty, who had both of Canada's goals, including one on the power play 13:44 into the first period. "Just get the win. ... We don't care who we face."

Canada was never really close to making that happen, as players spent much of the night on the outside of the wider, international ice surface as the Finns clogged up the middle. Even though the Canadians put 27 shots on Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask, many of them were not from prime scoring areas.

That's due in large part to a strong effort from Finland, which made a conscious effort to frustrate Canada's stars accustomed to NHL ice.

"We were trying to keep them outside because the angles are not so good as in the NHL because of the big ice surface," Teemu Selanne said. "I think most of the game we did a good job."

Canada's two goals came on sharp shots by Doughty, whom Los Angeles Kings and Canada teammate Jeff Carter called the most skilled player he has played with. Other than those goals though, the super-talented Canadian forwards struggled to produce much.

Duchene blamed the ice, which is 15 feet wider than in the NHL.

"It's the nature of this game, this international game," he said. "This is why the NHL should never go to a big ice, it'll take the scoring out of the game. You're able to play way more defensive on the big ice. It makes for less offence. You've seen no offence almost the whole tournament."

Canada has 11 goals through three games, which is good for third among 12 teams. But it didn't manage much against Finland.

Babcock noticed his team keeping the puck for almost the entire second period but failing to get many shots on net.

"I think when you put a whole bunch of skilled players together, you have a tendency to be on the outside and having the puck and you think you're doing something," he said. "You are, you're hanging on to the puck and you're hanging on to the puck and you're hanging on to the puck, but nothing's going on."

Enough nothing was going on for Canada that Finland was able to tie the score at the 18:00 mark of the second period on Tuomo Ruutu's deflection of Ossi Vaananen's point shot. Carey Price, who made 14 saves on 15 shots to earn the victory, couldn't do much given how perfect Ruutu's tip was.

As the clock ticked down in the third period, time ran out on either Canada or Finland earning the chance to have an easier quarter-final experience against Slovenia or Austria. Like Babcock, Westerlund didn't want his players worrying about that.

"We concentrated on performance, not results," Westerlund said. "We tried to win this game."

By losing in overtime, Finland became the No. 4 seed and will likely face fifth-seeded Russia, which must first beat 12th-seeded Norway in the qualification round. On Tuesday, it'll be No. 6 Switzerland vs. No. 11 Latvia, No. 7 Czech Republic vs. No. 10 Slovakia and No. 8 Slovenia vs. No. 9 Austria.

In the other quarter-final games, No. 1 Sweden will get the winner of Slovenia-Austria and No. 2 United States will get the winner of Czech Republic-Slovakia.

Minutes after experiencing the emotional high of winning in sudden-death overtime but not picking up all three points by winning in regulation, most players didn't know what the scenarios were. Forward Jonathan Toews did, and he knew a regulation loss would've meant getting what's now Finland's fate: a difficult quarter-final meeting with the motivated host Russians.

"At some point we're going to feel some pressure," Toews said. "I think tonight we did. We felt some pressure late in the game and it could have gone either way. It's going to be the same way the next game and the game after that if we continue to survive."

From here on out it's about survival, and Canada will get a significant test in facing Switzerland assuming coach Sean Simpson's team is able to get past Ted Nolan's Latvian group that has proven tough to play against. Led by goaltenders Jonas Hiller and Reto Berra, the Swiss only allowed one goal in their three preliminary-round games.

"It doesn't matter who we play," defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic said. "Swiss is a dangerous team. They've only allowed one goal, that was seven seconds left in the game. So they give everybody a hard time — assuming they win."

Facing Finland was a good preview for Canada, because the Finns are built on defence. Missing centres Saku and Mikko Koivu, Valtteri Filppula and now Aleksander Barkov, they rely on playing defence as five-man units and limiting quality opportunities.

"We knew we have to play team defence to beat these big countries," defenceman Kimmo Timonen said. "We did a good job, but I think we can still do better."

Canada knew what to expect from Finland, which won a bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and yet it still couldn't handle the task Sunday night.

Players know this trend can't continue.

"They took away the middle and they didn't allow us to create much speed," Doughty said. "We have to be prepared for this because this will be the style the rest of the way. So we have to be prepared for it and learn how to do things better."

Canada will probably have to do a lot of things better in the coming days to avoid early elimination. If the Canadians get past Switzerland, a potential showdown with the unbeaten and impressive Americans awaits in the semifinals.

"It's not getting any easier, but I think we definitely just need to stick with how we're playing," captain Sidney Crosby said.

It also doesn't get any easier because it's win or get back on a plane time, beginning Wednesday. There are still plenty of wrinkles to iron out, but forward John Tavares is confident he and his teammates will be ready.

"Ready or not," he said, "we've got to go."

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