Canadian men's qualifying round rematch against China opportunity to 'improve as a team'

In theory, Team Canada wanted to avoid a detour through the qualifying round in men’s hockey at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Julien, Canada look to iron out details for Tuesday's game ahead of quarter-finals

Team Canada goaltender Matt Tomkins (90) makes a save during a 5-0 win over China, and is now the favourite to take the crease for Canada going forward. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

In theory, Team Canada wanted to avoid a detour through the qualifying round in men's hockey at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

After all, anything can happen, even against an inferior opponent — especially if a goalie turns in the game of a lifetime. Canada knows this first-hand, after eking out a 2-1 quarter-final victory over Latvia at the 2014 Sochi Games when Latvia netminder Kristers Gudļevskis repelled an unbelievable 55-of-57 shots.

Injuries to key contributors are always possible. So are player suspensions, which could result in a big name watching the knockout round from the press box.

But for the Canadian men's team in Beijing, Tuesday's qualifying match against China might actually be a good thing.

More game action for head coach Claude Julien to tinker with the lines feels necessary — as does more time for the players to develop chemistry — after an underwhelming showing in the round robin.

WATCH | Highlights from Canada's win vs. China:

"At the end of the day, whatever happens, you've got to look at it in a positive way," head coach Claude Julien said Sunday after Canada blanked China 5-0 to finish second in Group A.  "Playing in a qualification round gives us the opportunity to play another game and to improve as a team.".

Improvement is certainly needed for this version of Team Canada — minus NHL players —  to contend for a medal.

And the last time Canada competed in the qualifying round resulted in gold with Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby, and Roberto Luongo beating Germany on the road to the Olympic final against the United States.

"You've got to remember that we had no pre-tournament games," Julien said. "This is basically our third game and the more you play the better you get as a team, so hopefully this plays to our advantage."

Unexpected scoring source

The energy line of Ben Street, Eric O'Dell and Kent Johnson — a third line in name only — is Canada's best through three games (the trio has combined for 4 goals and 11 points).

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound O'Dell is on the team due to his physical presence and strong two-way game. No one — likely not even the man himself — expected O'Dell to lead the way offensively.

"In the last game, we got some chemistry going with our line," O'Dell said. "And today, we started off really strong and got a few goals.

"Hopefully we can continue to play well for our team."

WATCH | Full replay of Canada vs. China:

The 31-year-old O'Dell is tied with Johnson for Canada's top offensive producer with a goal and four points. And Johnson — the University of Michigan forward who arrived in Beijing as a member of the taxi squad — is a force with the puck on every shift.

Areas to clean up

But the rest of the offence is still a work in progress.

Julien demoted Josh Ho-Sang to the 13th forward for Sunday's game. That's quite the tumble down the depth chart, considering he started the tournament on the first line with Staal and Mason McTavish.

The enigmatic Ho-Sang proceeded to collect two assists – one coming on a beautiful play where he drew two defenders to his side and slid the puck to a wide-open O'Dell. Canada dearly needs Ho-Sang's offensive touch, but the question remains where best to slot him.

Canada's Josh Ho-Sang, left, and China's Liu Jie (Jason Fram) battle for the puck. Canada continues to experiment with slotting Ho-Sang onto different lines, looking for a spark. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)

On defence, the Canadians committed a handful of glaring giveaways against China but didn't pay for those transgressions like they would against more formidable opposition.

"They're a big, fast and strong team with a lot of NHL-calibre players," China captain Brandon Yip said. "We need to start burying a couple of goals in there and get us back in the game and figure out a way not to get down so early.

"Because that's a tough team to come back against."

Julien started Matt Tomkins Sunday against China in place of the struggling Eddie Pasquale. NCAA standout Devon Levi dressed as Canada's backup. In contrast to the shifty Pasquale, Tomkins played still and square to the puck, turning away all 26 China shots.

After pitching a shutout, Tomkins, of Sherwood Park, Alta., is expected to play the qualifier against China and, should all go well, the quarter-final against Sweden.

'We can't take anything for granted'

Goalie Paris O'Brien — a Coquitlam B.C. native listed as Yongli Ouban — turned away 39 shots for China.

"It was a surreal moment," said O'Brien, 21. "I was born in Canada, but now I'm representing my Chinese heritage and my roots. But it's pretty cool to see and play against the team that I grew up watching, with many guys who I grew up watching in the NHL like Eric Staal."

China goalkeeper Ouban Yongli (Paris O'Brien) and salutes the crowd following a 5-0 loss to Canada, as the Coquitlam native is set to meet Canada again in a qualifying match Tuesday. (Matt Slocum/The Associated Press)
O'Brien and the rest of the Chinese side play for Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League, a team of mainly players with North American roots formed to prepare for these Olympics.

"There's lots of things to improve," O'Brien said. "But we're just here having fun out there, just enjoying the moment. Our main goal here is to spread the awareness of hockey in China and to inspire the younger generation in China."

The expectations for Team Canada are much greater, and the bumpy road to the podium is now longer, with the qualifier looming against China.

"One bad bounce here or there could make a difference, so we're going to prepare the same way we prepared for this one tonight," Julian said. "We took this one seriously."

"The one thing we know is they're going to come out hard, they're going to compete hard, so we need to be ready.

"We can't take anything for granted."


Vicki Hall

Freelance writer

Vicki has written about sports in Canada for more than 15 years for CBC Sports, Postmedia, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. She has covered five Olympic Games, 10 Grey Cup championships and one Stanley Cup Final. In 2015, Vicki won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing and is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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