Should Canada Be Worried After Latvia Scare in 2014 Olympic Hockey Quarterfinal?

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

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When a reporter asked Team Canada coach Mike Babcock why he went with goaltender Carey Price in the final game of group play against Finland despite Roberto Luongo playing so well in a shutout of Austria, he said that was the plan before the start of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and he saw nothing to make him change his mind.

Babcock made his assessment based on months, if not years of play by Price and Luongo, and nothing that happened against Norway and Austria was going to affect it.

As a nation turns its eyes toward a showdown with Team USA in the semifinals on Friday, that’s the same tack everyone should take after Canada’s dominant yet tight 2-1 victory against Latvia in the quarterfinals. Nothing that occurred on the ice—outside of a catastrophic injury to John Tavares—should influence your feelings about the quality of Team Canada.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

If you believed Canada was the favorite for gold before Wednesday, you should still believe it.

If you believed Canada was vulnerable because of its forwards’ inability to finish grade-A scoring chances, you should still believe it.

Pushing around Latvia after it played 24 hours earlier shouldn't matter to anyone, Babcock included, one bit.

Canada served up more shots than a bartender on St. Patrick’s Day in its win against Latvia. Canada struggled to finish, sure, but it outshot an exhausted and overmatched Latvian squad 57-16, and the game probably wasn’t even as close as those numbers indicated.

What does that mean against a high-scoring American squad that will be rested and ready for a shot at revenge for a loss in the gold-medal game four years ago in Vancouver?

Nothing. Zero. Zip. 

Coincidentally, that’s also the nickname for Sidney Crosby and whoever is on his line during the Olympics.

If there’s anything that should give Canada more hope after beating Latvia, ironically, it’s the leg injury to Tavares that will end the center’s Olympics.

Two things haven't changed throughout this tournament: Babcock’s penchant for dispersing playing time evenly among his four lines and his obsessive need to find new linemates for Crosby in what has been a menage a frustration for everyone.

Sidney Crosby's line production, game-by-game
Line combinationOpponentGoalsAssistsShots
Kunitz-Crosby-St. LouisAustria017

But who could blame Babcock for his ice-time management? The lines of Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews have been outstanding at generating chances throughout the tournament. The same can be said for the so-called fourth line centered by Tavares, which set up Canada’s first goal against Latvia.

But after Tavares went down in the second period, Babcock did something he hasn’t done throughout the Olympics—he shortened his bench and it paid dividends in the third period.

Canada outshot Latvia 22-5 in the third period, and the constant pressure led to a penalty, which led to Shea Weber’s power-play goal that proved to be the winner.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Crosby finished with about 18 minutes of ice time, about four minutes fewer than he usually plays in the NHL but about two more than he played when Canada struggled against Finland, its one tough opponent in the tournament. Crosby’s line once again came up empty Wednesday, but they were dangerous in the third period when called upon more by Babcock.

The results haven't been there for Crosby, but the chances have. If Babcock leaves him be with Chris Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron against Team USA, it's the best thing for Canada.

The top players in the world always play the most minutes for their NHL teams, but that changes when they’re brought together on an international All-Star team. With Tavares done and Matt Duchene likely to slot in as the fourth-line center, it gives Babcock the excuse he’s needed to lean on his big three lines against the Americans.

It's impossible to predict a team’s play against a strong squad like Team USA based on how it did against an inferior, gassed opponent like Latvia. The frequency and quality of chances Canada had against Latvia won’t be the same against Team USA in the semifinals.

But based on how Canada struggled with being a four-line team in its overtime win against Finland, emulating that strategy against Team USA would have dramatically reduced its chances of advancing to the gold-medal game. By feeding Crosby, Toews and Getzlaf the bulk of the work, Canada might be in better shape now than it was 24 hours ago.

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 19:  Patrick Sharp #10 and Rick Nash #61 of Canada check on teammate John Tavares #20 after he was injured during the Men's Ice Hockey Quarterfinal Playoff against Latvia  on Day 12 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s bizarre to say an injury to a Hart Trophy finalist and the NHL’s third-leading scorer is a good thing for a team, but it could be for Team Canada.

Canada's middle two lines, which have been so good throughout the Olympics, continued to dominate against Latvia. Patrick Marleau, Toews and Jeff Carter combined for 13 shots; Jamie Benn, Getzlaf and Corey Perry had 12 shots. 

Including the seven shots from Crosby's line, that's 32 shots from the top-nine forwards that resulted in zero goals.

If those three lines play that way against Team USA, will they really not find the back of the net again?

Anything else that comes offensively beyond that from a fourth line or defenseman is gravy.

As long as Babcock focuses on the flood of scoring chances and shots generated by his forwards, ignores the goal totals and decides against shuffling anything in his top three lines, Canada will be a handful against Team USA.

If Babcock flips the switch on his line combination blender for Team USA, there could be trouble.

Pretend this game against Latvia never happened. If you believed in this team and these line combinations before Wednesday, nothing that happened in the quarterfinals should have changed your mind.


Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.