SOCHI -- Canada coach Mike Babcock will not announce his lineup for the quarterfinals until the morning of the game on Wednesday.
But he settled one aspect of the lineup question rather definitively on Monday.
With two goals allowed in three games, both on shots deflected in front, one area of Canada's game Babcock has no trouble with has been his defense.
The pairings of Duncan Keith and Shea Weber, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Drew Doughty, and Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo have remained consistent from the moment Canada stepped off the plane here. Dan Hamhuis and P.K. Subban have been the fourth pair in practice and have alternated in and out of the lineup through three games.
It looks like that won't change any time soon.
"We've got three really good pairs," Babcock said Monday. "I'll be honest with you, Hamhuis and P.K. haven't got much of a chance. I mean the pairs are good. There hasn't been any changing of players there just because they've been real solid."
Hamhuis has dressed for two games and Subban for one. Between them they have played a combined 25:31 in three games, or 8:30 per game.
Hamhuis has one advantage over Subban in that he shoots left-handed and plays on the penalty kill. The left side of Canada's defense is not nearly as strong as the right, so having Hamhuis on the bench gives Babcock an option if one of the top-three lefties is having a bad game. Subban is more of a power-play specialist, and not only does Babcock have a number of defensemen to use on the point, forward Patrick Sharp also plays there with his Chicago Blackhawks teammate Keith.
It could be argued that Doughty and Weber have been Canada's best players, let alone its best defensemen, and the St. Louis Blues combination of Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo has been very solid defensively.
If there was one spot where Hamhuis could hope to get some ice time, it would have been slotting in for Vlasic, except he too has impressed his coaches.
"I just told somebody [Monday] morning that Vlasic is way better than everybody knows," Babcock said. "He's a really, really good player; Doughty gets to do anything he wants and Vlasic is always in a great spot. He's a good defender, he's become harder. He used to be a thin kid, now he's a thick man. He's hard, he's smart, he skates, he moves the puck and he's safe."
Babcock's declaration that his existing defense pairings should remain stable is a bigger endorsement of Vlasic's play than anything else he said. The San Jose Sharks defenseman made sure to emphasize he will not take his spot in the lineup for granted, but he couldn't help but feel some pride over what his coach thinks of his game.
"When it comes from him it's special," Vlasic said. "That he's evaluating your game and finds you're doing well, coming from a coach that's won everything, it's something."
Vlasic played with Doughty at the 2009 IIHF World Championship for Canada and also faces him regularly in the NHL as Pacific Division rivals when the Sharks and Los Angeles Kings play each other.
The big story for Canada has been Doughty leading the team by scoring four of its 11 goals, but having Vlasic as a partner gives Doughty the freedom to jump in the rush as often as he does knowing there is a solid defensive presence behind him.
So is Vlasic responsible for Doughty's offensive explosion?
"I'd like to say yes, but no," Vlasic said, laughing. "He's a great player. He's good offensively, he likes skating with the puck and he makes plays. It's just like he is in the regular season."
Doughty, on the other hand, believes Vlasic doesn't get enough credit for what he can do with the puck and thinks the partnership has helped him put his stamp on the Olympic tournament.
"He's a good offensive player himself. I think I'm jumping up too much and he's not having the opportunity," Doughty said, laughing. "He's faster than me, too. I told him, ‘You take off and I'll hold back if you want.' But he's been a great partner. We get along really well off the ice. We talk a lot over things during the game and it's working out."
Though his forward lines are in flux, Babcock has the confidence of knowing his defense pairs are solid and stable. With three games standing between Canada and a gold medal, that is one item to cross off the list of things Babcock has to worry about.
And if there is one thing that has made those defense pairs such a lock, it's been Vlasic's ability to mesh with Doughty.
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