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Canada shows first hints of Olympic lineup in Sochi

by Arpon Basu

SOCHI -- After avoiding any sorts of specifics about how he plans to line up the Canadian men's hockey team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, coach Mike Babcock finally had to show his cards Monday.

No, Babcock did not announce his No. 1 goalie. Nor did he roll out his forward lines consistently. But Canada's first practice Monday did provide some hints as to what Babcock and his coaching staff have in mind for the tournament.

Of course, Babcock wasn't willing to admit that.

Canada coach Mike Babcock wasn't committing to anything after his team's first practice Monday, but some interesting looks were Kings forward Jeff Carter on the top line and Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the second pair. (Photo: Getty Images, Mark Buckner/NHLI)

"Keep the players up," Babcock said when asked what he hoped to accomplish at practice. "Really. These guys have had a long day so we thought if we could get these guys some exercise at this time of night we had a better chance of staying up until midnight."

That wasn't all that was happening at practice Monday.

The pairs on defense remained consistent throughout the practice. It looks like the San Jose Sharks' Marc-Edouard Vlasic may get an opportunity to play a big role for Canada in the tournament; he was playing on the left side with Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty on what could be deemed a second pairing, behind the top pair of Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators. The third pair had St. Louis Blues regular partners Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, leaving Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks and P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens to skate on the fourth pair.

Subban and Hamhuis are Nos. 12 and 20, respectively, in the NHL in average ice time per game and one of them could be faced with the possibility of sitting out Canada's opening game Thursday against Norway (Noon ET, USA, CBC).

"For our players in particular, the biggest difference for them, you can talk about the size of the ice surface but I think it's adjusting to playing a lesser role," said Steve Yzerman, Canada's executive director. "You've got forwards that are used to playing 21 to 22 minutes a game that are going to play 10 and 11, and defensemen that are used to 27 playing 18. That's a huge adjustment for them all."

It will be a bigger adjustment for Canada than perhaps any other team in the Olympic tournament because of the star power on the roster. There are seven team captains on Canada, and 11 Stanley Cup champions. It will be impossible for Babcock to keep them all happy and that likely will be his biggest challenge.

For Subban, however, he doesn't see how he could be unhappy with anything that happened Monday, let alone getting a chance to practice with this team of All-Stars for the first time.

"I'm just happy to be on the ice with these guys and playing," Subban said. "The possibility of winning a gold medal means you might be put in a situation you're not used to. It's not about caring about your status on the team. It's about trying to win a gold medal."

The same situation applies up front, where Babcock only gave some hints as to what he might do in the tournament.

The natural duos of teammates at forward were maintained, with captain Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp of the Chicago Blackhawks all playing together, with several players shuffling in and out of the remaining slot on those lines. John Tavares of the New York Islanders was the fourth center with several players taking turns playing on either side of him, including Boston Bruins shut-down center Patrice Bergeron, Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn and New York Rangers forward Rick Nash.

The shuffling was significant enough that even Tavares came away confused.

"I think they had [the lines] posted in the locker room and a lot of us kind of missed it," Tavares said. "Having a bigger roster than back home, everyone's getting rotations in and everyone's trying to stay sharp and get a feel for different guys. To be honest, a lot of us weren't exactly sure ourselves. I think [Babcock] yelled out for my line and I wasn't exactly sure who it was, but I think he meant me down the middle. I'm just trying to be prepared to play anywhere and with anybody."

One forward who appeared to get an audition for a pretty coveted spot was Jeff Carter of the Kings, who was at right wing on a line with Crosby and Kunitz.

"They've played together for a long time and obviously created a lot of chemistry," Carter said of Crosby and Kunitz. "I think whoever plays with [Crosby] just has to keep it simple. Obviously Sid kind of runs it; he gets the puck and he makes the plays. You get the puck on your stick you've got to shoot it because he's going to put you in the right opportunities."

Babcock downplayed the importance of practice Monday, calling it an opportunity for the players to get some exercise so they could stay up late enough to combat the jet lag that results from a nine-hour flight and a nine-hour time change. But he still managed to critique Carter's performance in that spot.

"After watching him pass it back [Monday] I didn’t know for sure," Babcock said when asked to explain the decision to play Carter with Crosby. "Carter shoots the puck when gets it in L.A. and we expect him to shoot the puck when he gets it here. If he's giving it back to Sid he can't play with him."

Babcock refused to address how he would handle the goaltending workload of the Canucks' Roberto Luongo and Carey Price of the Canadiens, though he said last week that each would get a chance to start one of Canada's first two games, against Norway on Thursday and Austria on Friday (Noon ET, USA, CBC).

Those and several other lineup decisions will be made by Babcock and his coaching staff over the coming days, a relationship assistant coach Ken Hitchcock jokingly described Monday as being "a benevolent dictatorship."

"We'll be a work in progress, just like every team at the Olympics," Babcock said. "We've got good talent. Now we have to become a good team."

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