Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reaction to Canada's Fifth Hockey Game

If Canada ends up winning the Gold Medal in Men’s Hockey at these Olympics, then it will be said that losing to the Americans and having to play that extra game against Germany was the best thing that happened to Team Canada. The extra game gave Canada another opportunity to play with their line combinations, and find ones that worked. It allowed the defense to get on track. And it allowed Roberto Luongo to get his feet under him before playing in more important games. In short, it helped Canada tremendously.

From the opening faceoff onwards last night, Canada was clearly the better team. The Russians never even came close to matching Canada’s energy, forechecking, defense or goaltending. They never got their supposedly explosive offense going – Canada never gave them a chance. This game was essentially won in the first period, when Canada completely and totally dominated the Russians – scoring four goals on Evengi Nabokov in one period, and only allowing one on the power play. The great thing about Canada’s offsense is how varied it was. In that first period Ryan Getzlaf, Brendon Morrow, Rick Nash and Dan Boyle all scored. In the second, it was Weber (from Toews) and two by Corey Perry. The line juggling down by Mike Babcock worked. Even if the Crosby or Thornton lines did not get a goal – they didn’t need to. The secondary scoring came through in a huge way.

The key to the victory though was that Canada really did play as a team. All four forward lines forechecked brilliantly, and kept the puck away from the high powered Russian forwards, and forced them to play in their own end. Every time Alexander Ovechkin touched the puck, he was hammered by the nearest Canadian. They never let him really become a factor in the game. At yet every time the Russians did get a chance to score, Roberto Luongo was there to make the stop. He had a great game, even if he did let in three goals – you could not fault him on any of them, and he made key saves when Canada needed him to. That is the mark of a great goaltender.

There is almost nothing bad to say about Canada is this game. Yes, it would have been nice if the two top lines had generated more actual offense – something they will need to do in the next two games. But this was a complete team effort. And a great one.

What this sets up is a matchup against the Slovakians in the semi final game. Canada caught a bit of a break there, as Slovakia is not generally considered to be as strong of a team as some others in this tournament. However, it would be a mistake to take Slovakia lightly. They beat the Russians in a shootout during the Round Robin, and yesterday outworked the Swedes – who had been on a roll having not surrendered a goal in the Round Robin – for a tight victory. Along the way, they also beat the Latvians, and in a nail biter Norway in their Qualifier. They have the exact same record as the Canadians in this tournament (and strangely enough, their only loss came against their arch rivals as well – the Czechs). While the Slovaks have not won as convincingly in the last two games as Canada has – that doesn’t matter. They have got the job done, and no one expected them to be here at this point. They have already guaranteed them their best finish ever in Olympic hockey (they placed fifth in 2006).

I do not think the Slovaks are as deep a team as others in this tournmanet. Jaroslav Halak, their goaltender, has played great so far, but as fans of the Montreal Canadians know, he can be inconsistent. Canada needs to get in his face early and often and generate a lot of shots. Slovakia is a solid team defensively, and Canada will need to be hard on their defensement like Zdeno Chara and Andrej Meszaros, and watch Lubomir Visofsky on the powerplay. They have a solid core of forwards, including Marion Hossa, Richard Zednick and Marion Gaborik. In short, while I do think that Canada should, and will, beat Slovakia, if they slack off then they won’t.

The other semi final should also be great. Finland is the only medal winner from 2006 still left in the competition (they won Silver that year –the Swedes gold, and the Czech bronze), and aside from the losing their round robin game to Sweden, have been great all tournament long. In particular, Mikka Kipprusoff has played very well in net for them. I watched most of their game against the Czechs last night, and what I was most impressed with was their ability to control the pace of the game. Although it was a tight game -2-0 with one of those being an empty net goal – Finland was clearly the superior team. For this aging team, you know they want Gold to go along with the Bronze they won in 1998 and the Silver in 2006 (I believe Teemu Selanne has been on all of those teams, and there maybe a couple of others as well). They are looking to become the only team to win medals in 3 of the last 4 Olympics (or since the NHL started to allow their players to go).

The Americans on the other hand have breezed through this tournament so far, really only having to defeat one great team – Canada – which they did. Other than that they have beaten Norway, and Switzerland twice (although the Swiss gave them all they could handle in both games). Their best player has clearly been Ryan Miller in net, although it must be said that other than the Canada game, he has not been tested all that much. They are going to have their hands full with the Fins however, who are hoping to stop the only undefeated team left in the tournament. It should be a great game. Looking ahead to a Gold Medal game, I’m not sure who would make for an easier opponent for Canada, but I do know which team Canada would rather beat – America.

Before a go, a word about Russia. This has got to be devastating for them. After winning the Silver in 1998, and the bronze in 2002, they will held off the podium for the second Olympics in a row. Perhaps the worst thing that happened to them was that the beat Czech Republic in the Round Robin, which meant they won their pool, and got a buy into the quarter finals. That works for teams like America, and the Fins, who had obviously already congealed as a team (and it should have worked for the Swedes as well), but Russia was more like Canada in the Round Robin – still struggling to find their A game. The extra game Canada played against Germany allowed them to grow more confident, find the proper line combinations and generally gel as a team. Russia didn’t have that, and it was evident last night. They got increasingly desperate as the game wore along, and the Russian coach kept juggling his lines – something you already want to have sorted out by the time you get the quarters. You better believe that every player on Russia wants the NHL to allow their players to play in the next Olympics in 2014 on Russian soil. Russia is a nation like Canada, who lives and breathes hockey, and losing to their arch rivals in such convincing fashion in the quarters will not sit well with them. Heads are going to roll. You could almost feel sorry for them – but then of course, you remember it’s Russia.

Anyway, bring on the Slovaks!

PS: I know that women's hockey is not as popular as men's, but if you are a hockey fan, you owe to yourself to watch the women tonight take on the Americans for the Gold Medal. The games are not as physical, but they are still fun to watch - especially when Canada and America take on each other.

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