2010 Winter Olympics: Is Canada Succumbing to the Pressure?

Chad KlassenCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2010

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 21:  Head coach Mike Babcok of Canada looks on along with players Corey Perry #24, Eric Staal #21, Michael Richards #18 and Jonathan Toews late in the third period against the Unted States during the ice hockey men's preliminary game on day 10 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 21, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. Team USA won 5-3. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Never before was there as much pre-tournament hype as the enormous expectations heaped onto the Canadian men's hockey team prior to the Vancouver 2010 Games.

From the time Vancouver was awarded the Winter Olympics in 2003, the anticipation from hockey-crazed fans has been an Olympic gold on home ice. 

Yet, while players and coaches try to shed the pressure coming from the fans across the country and focus on the task at hand, it's been clearly easier said than done.

Head coach Mike Babcock has admitted as much.

Canada looked nervous in the tournament opener against Norway, failing to score in the first period with a slow start before putting its skill on display in an 8-0 rout.

Increasingly, especially in the second preliminary game against Switzerland—who shut out the country 2-0 at the Torino 2006 Olympics—the pressure was starting to become a big factor.

After racing out to a 2-0 lead in the second period, the home team let its guard down and started squeezing the sticks after the Swiss scored a big goal to pull within one. They managed to win 3-2 in a shootout, as Sidney Crosby saved the day, but it was a game that caused concern for outside observers.

Then, of course, losing to the rival U.S. in a first-place battle only adds to the anxiety around this heavily-favored team that's at least expected to win a medal—if not the gold.

From a pressure standpoint, it looks like the Canadians are just trying too hard to make it happen. Martin Brodeur was a wreck in net, overly eager to leave his crease to play the puck and directly caused two big U.S. goals as a result of his wandering.

Babcock, who was the first to admit his team played tight in the opening two games, didn't think his guys were feeling the pressure in the all-important meeting with the Americans.

But it already seems that the bigger picture—that is, winning gold in front of home fans—has clouded Canada's focus game by game as the tournament progresses.

Amazingly, the players, even after both the Switzerland and U.S. scares, haven't expressed any concern about their chances as a team moving forward. They have it in mind that they're a great team as it is and have taken a casual and nonchalant approach, which has ultimately cost them an automatic berth into the quarter-finals.

Offensively, they're certainly creating plenty of scoring chances, especially on Sunday with a 45-23 advantage in the shot department over the U.S.

There's no question Canada has adequately tested opposing goaltenders, who've responded brilliantly with great Olympic performances between the pipes—namely Switzerland's Jonas Hiller and American Ryan Miller who both stopped 40-plus shots.

However, the team's been caught pushing the puck up ice, playing more of a run-and-gun style, while at the same time leaving itself exposed at times defensively.

It's quite surprising, because Babcock has established himself as a defensive-minded coach who likes to shut it down. And while the best offense is considered the best defense, Canada has to get back to a Babcock-type defensive game that has propelled the Detroit Red Wings to two straight Stanley Cup Finals.

If the hosts hopes to advance past the quarter-final, especially against an offensive powerhouse like Russia, they'll need to play a lot tighter defensively—albeit less tight overall amidst the ever-growing pressure in Vancouver.

No team—whether it's in the NHL or the Olympics—can skate up and down the ice and not get burned with the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk, who make up Russia's make-shift top line. The Russian have the best top-six forward group out of any country and are ridiculously dangerous offensively when they're on their game, as they showed in their 4-2 win over Czech Republic to clinch Group B.

For the home country, after the 5-3 defeat to the U.S. on Sunday, the road to the gold medal just got tougher. Canada dropped to the sixth seed with the upset loss and will have to face Germany in the qualification playoffs.

A second straight quarter-final meeting with Russia is more than likely with a win over the Germans, but a lot more was expected from Canada to this point in its home Olympics and the players haven't delivered.

The pressure mounds.