Canada hoping for strong start to gold defense
CANADA vs. NORWAY
When: Thursday, 12 p.m. ET (USA, CBC)
Where: Bolshoy Ice Dome
What's at stake: The expectations are for Canada to cruise through its first two games in Group B before having to challenge Finland in the finale Sunday. Anything less than a decisive win here likely will create quite a bit of concern. Norway, on the other hand, has nothing to lose and everything to gain as a win against Canada would be a watershed moment in the program's history.
Canada: Even though Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo was between the pipes when Canada beat the United States in overtime four years ago in Vancouver to win Olympic gold, it wasn't a huge shock Wednesday when coach Mike Babcock named Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens as his starter against Norway. Price won his final three starts prior to the NHL break, including a head-to-head matchup with Luongo, and has allowed seven goals in his past six starts. He's 8-2-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .927 save percentage all-time on international ice. Luongo will still get his opportunity as the starter Friday against Austria.
The other big question surrounding the Canadian lineup involved who the healthy scratches would be. Martin St. Louis was invited to Sochi after his Tampa Bay Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos was unable to go, but he's battling with Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche for the final forward spot. On defense it likely will be a choice between offensive dynamo P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens or stay-at-home type Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks.
Regardless of what Babcock decides, everyone will be watching with the anticipation of Canada making an early statement as it begins its title defense. New York Islanders forward John Tavares, a first-time Olympian, is wary of the opponent, however,
"Every game's a tough game," Tavares told the IIHF website. "I remember World Championships for me in Slovakia. We beat Norway 3-2. It was a very close, tight game. They're a team that competes hard and they have a tremendous skill set. They made a lot of plays that game. Obviously some of these countries that may not be as well-known have played together for a long time. That makes a big difference and all those teams are going to be ready to play."
Norway: Capable of throwing a scare into a more-heralded opponent, Norway took Switzerland to overtime in group play in Vancouver before losing and had another one-goal defeat against Slovakia in the play-in game. Perhaps the biggest key as to whether it can hang around with the Canadians will be the matchup in goal. Expected to oppose Price is Lars Haugen, who plays in the Kontinental Hockey League and has no NHL experience.
That isn't to say Norway is completely bereft of NHL talent. Forward Patrick Thoresen and defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen both had stints in the League, and its main weapon, Mats Zuccarello, currently is enjoying a breakout season for the New York Rangers. He has career highs of 15 goals and 28 assists for a team-high 43 points. Zuccarello took a realistic view of what Norway's hopes are for its opener.
"We have to try to play our game," Zuccarello told the IIHF website. "I think we can play our max and Canada, with their skill set and the players they have, it's going to be tough for us. But you never know. All we can do is go out and give 100 percent and try to play a perfect game. And hopefully Canada's a little jet-lagged."
What's next: Each country gets right back at it Friday. Canada once again will be a heavy favorite against the Austrians (Noon ET, USA, CBC), while Norway will take on Finland (Noon ET, MSNBC, SNET).