Sunday, February 28, 2010

All Things (Olympic) Hockey: Part 4, One Last Show for an Absolute Beauty

The United States couldn’t look better heading into their rematch with host squad and arch rival Canada, but despite that, surprisingly, I have a huge problem.

I know it is an odd sentiment to have, since unless you happen to be from Stockholm or Moscow, this Olympic tournament has done nothing but spoil us as hockey fans. The talent level has been mind numbing. The intensity has been like that of the NHL playoffs. With the exception of a few blowouts, there has been an excess of drama. Storylines are popping up every day. The tournament thus far has been nothing short of outstanding. It has met every expectation and then some. Sunday, we get the matchup that we all want, the only down side is that after that it all has to end. After that, as much as I love the NHL, it will be a shame to wait another four years to do it again.

Putting aside that upsetting thought, the message from Vancouver is clear. Mr. Betteman, you have been doing the best job of your career the past two years, I will begrudgingly admit. Since the lockout, aside from sticking with Versus, a situation that was largely unavoidable after ESPN cut ties in 2005, hockey fans have had less to criticize you about then at any other time in your career. That isn’t to say that past mistakes have been forgotten, but there have been fewer recently.

There is something you have been refusing to give a clear answer on though, even though it should be obvious. Ovechkin, camera shoving and media ignoring aside, is right. This needs to happen again in four years, Gary. NHLers need to go to Sochi, and if you prevent that, it needs to be your final straw.

Of course that tournament isn’t quite over, and the most memorable part is still to come. There will be plenty of time to say what I want about going back to the Olympics (and I have plenty more to say), I only mention that because yesterday’s slate drove that point home in spades. Both games were, in their own way, absolutely beautiful displays of hockey.

The first, the United States immediate dismantling of Finland was not by any means dramatic. As weird as it sounds, the game actually wasn’t even as close as its 6-1 final score. America came out absolutely flying. Too me, the defining moment of the game was that of a loose puck slipping down the ice, and the Finnish defensemen Sami Lepisto and Jani Niskala turning to give chase out of their attacking zone. The two defensemen had a good 10-15 feet on Phil Kessel when he took off. By the far blueline, Kessel had caught and passed both of them, who curved awkwardly for Mikka Kiprusoff’s pass. Kipper misjudged Lepisto’s turn, though, giving it to Ryan Malone and opening the floodgates for the United States.

Kessel giving chase, being faster, wanting it more, and making it easy for his teammate by forcing Finland into error were a fitting analogy for the first period of the game. The United States was phenomenal, essentially wrapping the game up by the 9: 52 mark, when Patrick Kane’s backhand made it 4-0 just after a Finland timeout. Mikka Kipprusoff literally pulled himself, headed to the locker room, and with almost 50 minutes to play, the game was decided.

Since 47 dull, almost meaningless minutes followed the six goal onslaught that started the semi-final game, it is easy to question what exactly made it hockey at its best. While a blowout is hardly what you look for when you go in to a game wanting to see a good one, hockey at its best is exactly what the United States gave the world in that first period. Every pass was crisp. Every play was made. Seams were found. Pinches were perfectly timed. Opportunities were finished. It is easy to write off the win by saying Kipprusoff gave it away, and in a way he did. Obviously, that first goal let all the air out of the Finland team, and in a way they didn’t have a chance after that. But the next five goals, they earned. I have watched it at least five times, and really, it could have been even worse. It was just a formidable display by every member of the American team.

The second game was your more traditional classic. Obviously, I took a lot of flak from friends, for being a moron, out of my mind, naive and just plain wrong when I said I thought that Slovakia was a better team than Russia, and was going to beat the Canadians. Do I wish I picked Canada? Kind of. Being right is great, but I am happy that I went out on a limb, and I feel pretty vindicated anyways. Slovakia was vastly underrated in this tournament, I knew it, and in that way, I was right. I would say that is at least as good as picking the winner in one game with a heavy favorite (and yes, I am rationalizing the fact that the one time I went with my gut over convention, I turned out to be wrong).

Really, though, the label of Cinderella, which they were given in spades, was unfair. Slovakia was loaded. I would trade anyone on the Sharks for the Marians, Gaborik and Hossa. That isn’t to say that they do more for a team than Marleau and Thornton, but no one is more fun to watch. Slovakia, as I wrote was a good team on both ends, and they didn’t do anything that shouldn’t be expected of them moving forward (especially because Jaroslav Janus, star of the 2008-2009 WJCs, an up and coming netminder, will likely be a well known name by 2014).

It took them 2 periods to get started, but once they did, Slovakia put the fear of God in Canada. Unfortunately, as good as they proved to be, they proved to be equally hot and cold, and in this one, the cold was good for 3, the hot for just 2. With that in mind, I don’t want to take too much away from Canada. Some will be eager to say that they looked shaky in coming a missed open net by Pavel Dimitra away from overtime, but I would go the other way and say that they took care of business against a tough, tough opponent, something you couldn’t apparently say for the Finland squad, which was done 10 minutes in.

That leaves us with the rematch that everyone has wanted to see. I would have loved Slovakia and the USA go 1-2. The fact is, though, this is the best thing for the game. Anyone with a pulse, a TV, and a passing interest will tune in for this one. I would break it down, but there is no point. These are the two best teams in the world, they will do battle, and a bounce or two will determine who gets to sing off key at the end of the game. The prediction is simple. It is also worthless. Canada has the best players, the USA appears to have the best team. No one, including myself, can know to any degree of certainty what will go down. On top of that, I am about as objective as…well, l don’t know, something that is really not objective at all. Anyways, just for fun, let’s go with USA 2 - Canada 2 after regulation, America pulling it out in overtime for a 3-2 win.

Take that to the bank, or don’t. It is a guess anyways.

So back to that problem. Tomorrow (actually, today by now), I am going to see the most anticipated hockey game that I can remember. My schedule is cleared. I fully intend to sequester myself in my room with a Team USA style Polo zip-up and a Ryan Miller inspired Sabers t-shirt. Text messages, phone calls, and facebook messages will fly from my dorm, breaking down team USA with my countrymen, and talking trash with my Canadian friends. Facebook and Twitter will light up with patriotism and (hopefully) celebration. Hockey, for once, will be the center of the universe. I will thoroughly enjoy the entire affair. But then it will disappear for four years, and even longer from North America. It might be what makes it so good, but it is still a shame, so I better enjoy this one. That shouldn’t be a problem.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

All Things (Olympic Hockey): Part 3, No Regrets

A couple of years ago, I wrote a 2008 MLB preview where I projected the standings for the three AL divisions. The Tampa Bay Rays had long been the laughing stock of the AL East, and had gone a dismal 66-96 in 2007. A lot of people thought that the Rays would always be the Rays, but I wasn’t sure. I really liked some of their younger players. They seemed to have been stockpiling talent, and seemed prime for a breakout. Something told me that 2008 was the year it could come together. Still, they were the Rays. Here’s what I wrote:

In all seriousness, this team has built up an arsenal of prospects over the years. I think that this will be the year that they finally make the jump to contender. There is way too much talent on this roster for them not to become a winning team in the next few years. Although giving up Delmon Young may have been difficult (or maybe not considering his unpopularity and discipline issues), but adding Matt Garza to Jamie Shields and Scott Kazmir gives the Rays something they have never had before, a solid pitching staff. In any other division, the Rays have the talent to contend for the division title. More importantly, as Barry Bonds has shown us by pointing to the sky after HRs, God cares deeply about baseball. The Rays dropped the “Devil” from their names and renounced their satanic allegiance. Look for the omnipotent creator of the universe to reward the Rays with solid middle relief and consistent two out hitting.

Apart from the tongue in cheek bit, I really believed that about the Rays, and I wrote it in February, before they came out and won the AL East with 97 wins. Great, right? I had called that they would become a contender. The problem was that I also wrote this: “3. Tampa Bay Rays.”

In my heart of hearts, I really did think that the Rays had a better roster than the Yankees, and I should have picked them ahead of them, to win the wild card. The problem was, I had been told time and again how good the Yankees were, and I knew the Rays had never been good, so I went conservative. I said I thought the Rays were good, but didn’t go all the way with it. I was right, but I could have been really right, and as soon as the Rays got off to a hot start, and established themselves as a contender, I was kicking myself for not being more bullish on them.

Fast-forward to yesterday, and I have the exact same feeling. Sure, I picked Canada, and sure, I spent a few paragraphs breaking down why the Russians were weak at defensemen, and how this was neutralizing their talent up front, but I didn't say that I ultimately wasn’t sure how good the Russian team was. I didn’t say that I thought that the Slovakia upset (over Russia, not the one last night) wasn’t an upset at all. Most importantly, I didn’t say what I should have, that the Russians had 5 stars, 3 good players, and after that they weren’t a great team. They weren’t even a good one.

What I ended up saying was pretty flimsy. I pointed out that the Russians were the number 1 team in the official IIHF Rankings, I didn’t mention their lack of forward depth, or boneheaded decision to go with the KHL core, and I said that I “thought (their D) would hurt them against Canada.” Sure, I picked them to go down, so I was right, but I could have been more right. Once again I knew it right away. A couple of minutes after the 4:30 start, I had started to send out txt messages questioning if the Russians were as good as we thought. My answer? No.

I went over the defensemen problem at length, and I'm glad that I wrote that before the game, but for the most part, I wish I had a mulligan breaking down the Canada-Russia game in preview. So I’m taking a mulligan. Because it is my blog. And I can. Sure, it is easy to say these things now that Russia is headed home, just know that a, I was tempted to before the game, and b, I started writing the following paragraph at about 4:45 on Wednesday.

We have been building up this Russia Canada match up for a few days now. Rightfully so. They are the number one and two ranked teams in the world. The star power is overwhelming with guys like Ovechkin, Crosby, Kovalchuk and Heatley and Nash taking the same ice. The problem is, that by proxy, this has built up the Russian team. We have assumed that they can beat Canada, that they are at least one of the favorites for gold, but there is a problem. I’m not sure that they are that good, and the problem doesn't end with the back end, like I talked about yesterday, either.

The Russian top 5 is beyond reproach. Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Semin compare to the first five on any team…anywhere. After that, they have four guys who are…fine. Afinogenov is good but inconsistent, Radulov is good but playing at a lower level in Russia (yeah, a lower level, more on that later), and Gonchar is good but old, and hasn't been healthy that much lately, and Markov is good, but really not that good. After that? They look way more like the Belarusian or Swiss team than the Canadians.

Just look at the rosters, and it seems, well, apparent, if not obvious. Among those on the third Canadian line were Ryan Getzlaf, Eric Staal, Johnathan Teows, and Jarome Iginla. NHL stars. For America, either the Joe Pavelski, Ryan Malone and Phil Kessel or Bobby Ryan, Patrick Kane and David Backes line made up the third unit. Either way, they had three borderline all-stars, at worst, on that line. For Sweden, Franzen, Hornqvist and Samuelsson or Modin make up the 6-9 forwards (by my estimation, I didn’t find their actual lines, but I had them behind the Sedins, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, and Peter Forsberg) and are first liners in the NHL. For Russia, after putting Afinogenov with the big five, you are left with Radulov (fine), a washed up Sergei Federov, and a long forgotten Viktor Koslov as the third line, or else that AHL (sorry, Freudian Slip), I mean KHL line that they have been rolling out.

The result is simple. Guys like Alexander Frolov and Alexei Kovalev got passed up for the 2010 team because the Russian brass wanted to prove the strength of the KHL. They did the opposite. They ignored the fact that the KHL is a league where guys like Robert Esche, an ancient Alexei Yashin, and former NHL role player Josef Vasacek have been top tier players. They wanted to prove their league, so they took six of their twelve forwards from the KHL.

The result is simple. They aren’t as good as they could have been, and they just don’t match up with the powers. Really, they are closer to a team like Slovakia. Seriously, is Gaborik, Hossa, Handzus, Demitra, Satan, Palffy (showing his years much less than Federov), Zednik, Kopecky and Marcel Hossa much worse than Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk, Semin, Afinogenov, Federov, Radulov and Kozlov? I don’t think so. It’s worse, but not that much worse, and when you take the blue lines into account, they begin to look even. They tried to prove the KHL is coming up to par with the NHL, but what they ended up proving is that it has a long way to go.

So that is what I wish I had said about the Russians. I’m not saying I would want to see them. The fact that they have five guys who can score so potently makes them capable of beating anyone. I just don’t know if we can be as surprised as we were by their 2-2 Olympics record.

Moving to yesterdays slate, we got three high quality games, and one where the level of talent was so high, it made up for the lack of a cleanly played game. The day started off with the Swiss against the Americans, and really, it was one of those games that if you watched, you know how enjoyable it was, but if you didn’t, it is hard to explain.

The relentless American attack being held off again and again by Hiller’s standing on his head, countered by the occasional Swiss attack was great theater, even if Americans would have preferred an easier time of it. All in all though, the USA played well, and Ryan Miller showed no signs of letting up after becoming a national phenomenon against Canada.

After that, even though the Canadians were clearly a class above the Russians, knowing who the Russians had on the front line and that the loosening of play favored their ubertalented forwards, the game, despite not even being as close as the 7-3 score, didn’t lack for drama. Both the Finish and the Czechs brought it, but amongst an incredible slate of four games, the 2-0 win for Finland was comparatively forgettable (although had it not been surrounded by beauties, it likely would have been much more memorable).

The best game of the night though, was the nightcap. I don’t have a solution, short of adding a third rink to the venue, but it is a shame that this one started at midnight eastern, just like it was a shame that Finland-Sweden, Slovakia-Russia and the Czech Republic-Slovakia were played when most people in the most populated region of North America was in bed (small wonder the Slovakians have flown under the radar). Like I said, though, with just two rinks, there are already games from noon until 11:30, many days non-stop, so it is tough to avoid. This really was a thrilling affair though.

If you live east of, say, Chicago, or are over the age of 30 and were in bed by the time this wrapped up (for the record, I was falling asleep, despite being riveted, in the third period), let me fill you in. After a scoreless period, the Slovaks came out firing, and grabbed two in under a minute from Marian Gaborik and Andrej Sekera (a defenseman for the Sabers), taking a 2-0 lead a third of the way into the second period. Sweden answered a couple of minutes later when Hornqvist put a backhand past Halak, and a Zetterberg centering pass went off a Slovakian shin pad to tie it at two.

This is where the difference, in my opinion, between the Russians and the Slovakians came into play. With the defending champs carrying the momentum, Slovakia had the talent along the blueline to calm the game down, hold off the Swedish attack, and basically do exactly what Russia could not against Canada, when one goal quickly turned to two and three for the Leafers. The result was a lot of back and forth play, until Pavol Dimitra blasted one past Lundqvist, converting a Slovakia powerplay in the waning minutes of the second to give his Slovakia squad a 3-2 lead.

In the third, Lundqvist made a nice stop on a 2 on 1 with Gaborik and Hossa (probability of scoring on that has to be about 90%), but Tomas Kopeky trailed the play, and knocked home the rebound to make it 4-2. Sweden immediately answered to make it 4-3, but Sloakia ultimately held off the attack, to knock off the defending champs, and give themselves a chance to take down Sweden, Russia and Canada in the same tournament.

So now that we have our match ups, it would be remiss not to look to the last four games of the tournament. This brings me to a regret not unlike the one that I voiced earlier about the Rays, or about the Russians. Those came down to a lack of fortitude, this one to an excess of laziness.

When I did the Olympic previews after I got through teams 12-6, I got bored, and then lost interest, then momentum, then forgot about it, then never picked it up and did 1-5. If I had, I would have had Sweden at 5, Russia at 4, Slovakia at 3, the United States at 2 and Canada at 1. It is useless to say it now, but I could have had the three medalists as my top 3, in some order. Alas. The lesson as always, I’m an idiot (line copy write 2001 Bill Simmons Enterprises).

Anyways, it is time to swallow my anger at myself, and make up for it by nailing the final two rounds. For the most part, I couldn’t be happier with the way my picks have gone regarding the tournament. I nailed the USA over Canada upset (even if I was 100% prepared to be wrong), then picking the first two rounds I got every game except for the Swiss/Belarus game (dumb, in retrospect), the Czech/Finland game (I would take the Czechs again) and the Sweden/Slovakia game (“I would love to go with Slovakia here, and I think that they have a legitimate chance to take down the 2006 champs, but in what is essentially a tossup, I’ll give Sweden with the extra rest"…crap, I’m seeing a pattern), and while 6 for 9 could be better, I feel pretty good about the way I have been doing so far.

Obviously, I am going to go with the Americans over the Finish for two reasons. First of all, I refuse to pick against my teams. I picked the Cowboys to cover 16 times this year in pig skin pick ‘em, refused to go with the prudent Canada choice (which ended up working to my advantage), and spared no confidence going with the Sharks in five last April against the Ducks. I am a case study of why you should never bet significant money on your team. I would rather be wrong than go against the team I am rooting for.

That is reason enough for me to pick the Americans, but I also happen to think that I am right here. I stand by my ranking of Finland 6 before the tournament, and 7th going into elimination play. Their forwards are punchless, they are fine but not overly impressive on the blueline, and Kipprusoff is great, but doesn’t represent and advantage over any of the other elite nations' goaltending.

As for the tournament, Finland lucked into the bye on the strength of meaningless wins over Belarus and Germany, perhaps the two worst teams in the tournament (based on how they played, not talent going in), and despite getting manhandled by Sweden in their only preliminary test. Still, the Fins got the tiebreaker, which allowed them to squeak by a Czech team that had been taken to overtime by Latvia and their 2 NHLers less than 24 hours before. Forgive me for thinking that they have had an unimpressive tournament, but I just don’t see them hanging with the Americans who have looked like the best team so far, even if they aren’t on paper. I like the United States to return to the championship game, beating Finland 3-1.

Then we come to the game that a nation will be watching. They probably won’t be watching as closely as they should, since Slovakia is hardly a nation that strikes fear into the hearts of the IIHF aristocracy, of which Canada is a founding member. Slovakia, though, leads the world in sneaking up on teams, as Peter King would say, since he leads the world in making up statistical categories that aren’t really statistical categories, and saying that people or teams are #1 in them. The fact is, I see a lot of ways that Slovakia can win this game.

They are 4 deep with quality defensemen, boasting a top 4 of Chara, Jurcina, Visnovsky and Mezaros, with Sekara making a solid 5. That is 5 solid, top two NHL defensemen, with three who are number 1s on their team. This is not a passable unit, but rather a real strength. It may not compare with the all-star team Canada has on their back line, but it is probably second or third best in the tournament. Up front, Slovakia reminds me a bit of Russia. Tons of top end firepower with a bit of a drop after the elite scorers. At this point, you’re probably thinking that I just took a thousand or so words to tear down the Russians, and am now trying to give the Slovaks credit for looking like them. In a word, yes. In three words, yes, I am.

The reason for that is simple. My point was simply that the Russian team wasn’t as good as they were given credit for, that being really freaking good. I didn't say that they were a bad team. I said if you took away 5 of their top guys, they were bad, as in they would be bad if every team had to play without their 5 best guys (that doesn’t make it an irrelevant point, by the way, because the reason they lost was an inability to match depth). On the other hand, even if they are only as good as I think Russia is, that is a tremendous upgrade from where Slovakia is generally considered to be, which is usually the 7th best team.

Finally, my point was that Russia wasn’t a juggernaut. Never did I say, and never would I say that they couldn’t beat anyone on a given night. A team with that much offensive talent has at worst a fighters chance on a given night. I happen to think that Nabokov was less at fault than he is getting blamed for, but still, if he plays on his head, could that be a different game with Ovie, Kovy and Datsyuk gunning for Luongo? Of course.

I feel the same way about Slovakia. They need to play great defensively. I don’t say that Halak needs to stand on his head, because that is, frankly, unlikely to happen. The Slovakians can play a gritty game, though, and have great defense, as I said earlier. This means that they have other ways of slowing down a powerful Canadian attack. Chara is the best shut down defenseman in the league (this isn’t even debatable), so even though Halak isn’t likely to steal a game, a 2-1 win is a possibility.

Even as good as Canada is, I don’t see Slovakia getting 100% shut down. Palffy, not Jagr, Foresburg or Federov is the ex-NHL star who has most resembled his old self, and the Marians (Gaborik and Hossa) are two of the scariest scorers in the world. The secondary list of Satan, Zednik, Dimitra and Hanzus isn’t overwhelming, but they are all guys capable of chipping in.

Still, turning to Canada, there are so many reasons that they should win this game. Their top end talent might be as good as Slovakias. Their defense (at worst) matches Slovakia’s. Luongo is an advantage over Halak. They have been a juggernaut the past two days. They are team freaking Canada. They really are the smart choice, and it would be almost too hard not to pick them.

If you have read this column (and something tells me you have) though, you probably see where I am going. Three or four times, I have had a gut feeling. I have broken it down, and explained that gut feeling, but been unable to go with it, and I regretted it. I could say that this could go either way, that it will be a close game, and that ultimately Canada is the better team. Because they are. But I have been burned by that, and I need to learn my own lesson.

It would be easy to do what feels like the obvious pick, against my instinct, but what is the fun in that? If I am right, so was everyone else, and if I’m wrong, I kick myself for not having the fortitude to go with what I wanted. I was going to pick the medal games, but I have rambled on long enough, so I will do that on Saturday. Besides, this seems like a dramatic enough place to end.

The prediction for Friday: Slovakia 5, Canada 3.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

All Things (Olympic) Hockey: Part 2


It has been 3 hours now since the USA knocked off team Canada in the last game of group a play. The United States has essentially clinched a spot in the medal games, pending a game with the winner of the Switzerland versus Belarus. Canada has to play their way into the second round (more on that later). I can’t believe it. I am still absolutely amped. I need to calm down. USA! USA!! USA!!!

Maybe this picture of Air Force One flying over Mt. Rushmore will help.

Nope, how about Toby Keith standing in front of an F-150?

Still not working, how about a few sticks over the flag, projected on a rink.

Celebrating after the last goal?

Yeah, this is actually having the opposite effect.

(Deep breaths)

Ok. What a game. Nothing I can say will really capture just how big a win that is. What a year this is starting out as for the United States national team. Two wins over Canada, both on Canadian ice. Unbelievable.

It really was an all around great win for the Americans. Sure, they got badly outshot (a final count of 45-23), but in a weird way, they actually outplayed the Canadian team. The US got offense when they needed it, kept the puck out of the zone when they needed to, and bunched up to withstand the USA effort when they needed to. Ryan Miller was, obviously, as spectacular as he needed to be, but the scoring chances were way closer to even than the shots would suggest in my opinion.

To me, the most encouraging thing, amongst coming right out and quieting a Canadian crowd, immediately responding to Canada’s tying the game, and not losing a period (tying the second), was that when the USA needed to contain Canada, they did, but not just by preventing.

When the USA started the period by scoring on their third powerplay, there were still 15 minutes on the clock, and still at least 15 guys on the red bench that could score two likethat. I wrote at the time that America couldn’t hang back, let Canada control the play, and hope to hold them off for the rest of the game. They needed to attack when they had the chance, control the play (to the extent that they could), and play defense first by not making mistakes, controlling the middle of the ice and, getting the puck out/deep etc, but not bunch up in their own end.

That is exactly what they did. Miller only had to make 3 saves in the first 15 minutes of the third period. Sure, he had 7 in a flurry at the end, but that is inevitable when a team that good not only gets a couple of powerplays, but pulls their goalie and needs to pour it on for a last run. That was when Miller (I’m told by everyone breaking down the game, anyways) channeled Jim Craig and held off the Canuck attack.

This game has turned around the way I look at this tournament. I am no longer objective. I am now 100% emotional about the US team. I don’t care that I don’t think all of the guys should be on the team, or that one of my favorite players is on the Ducks. They are our boys now. There is a feeling that they can win it, and I am not alone.

I quoted twitter a couple of times during the game, and nothing regarding the game made it to trending, but believe me if there was a sports twitter, it would have been at the top of the charts. People like Jason Whitlock, Bill Simmons, and Peter King, who don’t usually even mention hockey were all over the game. It really was the forefront of the sports world for a few hours, and it didn’t disappoint for a second.

Even facebook was blowing up, as friends who play hockey, and those that couldn’t give a crap alike were posting things like “USA USA USA USA .... World Juniors-USA ... Olympics-USA. I think we may just be the better hockey country” by a former coach (of mine, a current coach, actually), "Team USA Hockey Jersey: $50 Big Screen TV: $1150 Cable: $179 Watching US beat Canada twice in one year on Canadian soil: Priceless There are some things in life money can't buy. For everything else, there is USA Hockey” by my brother, or “F*** YEA AMERICA!!! F*** THE CANUCKS!!! HAHA USA HOCKEY FTW!!!” by a kid who hasn’t skated in his life. Most of my friends, seemingly were chiming in, mostly with just a “USA” or “USA HOCKEY,” but it was definitely there.

I went into today knowing that it could be an epic hockey day. I now know that even though the third game has thus far lacked luster, you couldn’t have asked for much more. Even the ending was perfect, with my arch-nemesis Corey Perry making his fourth questionable play, and getting beat by Kessler a guy I have always liked to ice it.

The Rest of the Prelims

I said just a few paragraphs ago that the USA Canada changed my outlook on this tournament, and turned me from someone who was rooting for a team, but also watching interestedly for all of the games, to a fan, who is consumed rooting for one team, not observing and following all of them. Still, I can watch and look back on the rest of the games. I usually manage with the Sharks.

Before the final day when the USA-Canada game overshadowed everything else that happened to that point in the tournament, there were three games that stuck out.

The first was the biggest upset to that point, the Slovakians beating the Russians. There is no real take from this game, though. The Russians still got the bye from the win over the Czechs, and the Slovakians still have to play their way in with the loss. It showed though, that Russia is far from infallible, and that this Slovakian team is extremely talented. They really are. Just look at the roster. In my opinion, this doesn’t even qualify as a major upset. The scoring punch of Gaborik, Hossa and Satan is not quite on par in depth with the Russians, but the difference is at least partially made up by their superior D core. Sweden can’t be too excited about their pending matchup in the quarters. Slovakia has earned their spot amongst the powers of international hockey, and as such, one group was bound to have 3 power teams. This game was, more than anything, an implication of that. No surprise that group B ended up a mess.

The second interesting game ended up being one that no one likely saw coming. It was Belarus taking Sweden to the brink almost making C an equal mess, but falling in a closely played 4-2 game to the reigning gold medalists. I have to admit, I didn’t see this one, but the main thing that I would say is that Belarus is one of the most suceptable teams to a blowout, and yet no one seems concerned for Sweden. I didn’t see a lot of group C, but I would be somewhat worried by their lack of dominance in this one.

I was more concerned for the Canadians (excited, actually, would be a better word) and their lack of dominance against the Swiss. Hiller, like Miller, was great in that game, but teams like Sweden and Canada should simply not be taken to the brink like that by reams who have NHL talent going 3 and 4 deep. My main comment was that I had hoped that Nino Niederreiter would be on the Swiss team (he played with Olympian Luca Sbisa in the World Juniors), and I don’t think they go 0-4 in the shootout if he is. YouTube him, and you will know what I mean.

Finally, regarding the other games on rivalry Sunday, it was a great slate, and it didn’t let down. The Russian/Czech game lived up to expectations, was intese and well played. An all around good game. As for the Ovechkin hit on Jagr, no one looks twice at it and questioned it like this if Dustin Brown throws that hit. He exploded into him but it was clean. End of story. As for the Scandinavian game, it really wasn’t even as close as the 3-0 score. Finland just looked bad.

Equal time—The Women’s Tournament

Everyone has dirty little secrets. Some people, John Edwards for instance, have dirty big secrets. Some people, like Tiger Woods, have lots. I have a dirty little secret, but like Tiger, I am getting it off my chest to get ahead of the media storm that will ensue if it gets out.

I, Jackson Morgus, have watched at least 10 women’s hockey games this Olympics. And I have enjoyed most of them.

It started out as a small problem. “Oh…the USA is playing China. It will be interesting to see a Chinese hockey team. I have played with Hilary Knight, I wonder how she is doing. Come on, it’s USA Hockey, besides what else is on.” Then it got worse. I started mapping out time to watch the American games. This was still okay though. After all, it was for country, and USA hockey was involved.

Then, one day, I hit rock bottom. It started innocently. I was sitting in my room, at my computer. I was surfing the internet when things went bad. I went to NBC Olympics. I saw what was on live. There was nothing too exciting. So I clicked on the only live hockey game. And I watched Finland play China. I need a shower just telling the tale.

Ok, obviously I speak somewhat in jest. I am not nearly as ashamed as I let on about watching girls’ hockey. If there is nothing great on, I would rather watch hockey than just about anything else. On the other hand, it does warrant mentioning, that against my expectations, I have been enjoying the tournament.

Sure, it has problems. The action is slower and generally worse. There is no hitting. There are teams that barely lift the puck. Then there is the big problem. The fact that there are two levels. There is the USA and Canada, and there is everyone else. Look at the scores, this is a fact.

The thing is, it doesn’t really bother me. The other teams can still compete against each other, and it is worth it to get to the championship game. I don’t know why, despite its problems, it has been fun to watch, maybe it is just fun to have America be the power (and they are, that Quest Tour, having the girls national team play together for months leading to the tourney, did wonders and made them an absolute juggernaut). I can’t explain it, I just needed to get that off my chest.

Back to the USA- The Implications

Apart from being an impressive win over Canada on their home soil, despite being in the prelims, the implications of America’s win are huge. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Sure, it is great to have a first round bye, and the number one seed looks great, but that is just the beginning.

Consider this:

There are two really scary teams in this tournament, maybe three. Those are Sweden, Canada and Russia. The earliest that the Americans could play one of those teams would be in a medal game. Those are the three teams that one could say are more talented than the US, and yet for the US to go out to one of them, it would likely be for a silver medal. Don’t get me wrong, after the last game, only a gold will be satisfactory, but no reasonable fan would write off the tournament as a failure if silver was the result.

In order to get to that silver game, the United States could not have asked for a more favorable schedule. First they will play the winner of Belarus versus the Swiss. Both teams played some elite squads close in the first round, and can’t be taken lightly, but no matter what, America will be a heavy favorite to advance to the semi-finals.

There, it gets a bit tougher, but not all that much so. The Czech team will likely take care of the Latvians, setting up a date with the Finnish, who earned a bye as the top team not to win their bracket, thanks to wins over Belarus and Germany. They had an easy road there, as they were handled in their only trying game, but none the less they get the bye thanks to a stocked group B (Russia, Czech Republic and Slovakia), and the Swiss taking Canada to the shootout.

No matter who takes the Finland versus the Czech Republic game, the USA has to like their matchup in the semis. The Czech team was known to be a bit down going into the games. They are missing perhaps their most talented player in Ales Hemsky, have a goalie who has been very succesful, but also shaky at times in the NHL in Thomas Vokun, and are relying on a 38 year old who hasn’t played in the NHL for two years for offense in Jagr. They are, of course, a good team, but I like the Americans should be favored once again if they meet on Friday.

If the Finnish take care of the Czechs, that would be an equally favorable matchup for the red, white and blue, if not more so. Without breaking it down to far, suffice to say the Finnish lacked luster in a major way when they faced the Swedish team that they profess to be rivals with. Pardon me for not being too impressed by wins over Belarus and Germany, but while the Americans aren’t quite good enough to take anything for granted, they have to like the matchup all the way to the finals.

Then there is the most incredible thing, in my opinion, to come from the American win. A look at the bracket shows the game to circle is the potential quarter final matchup on the other side. It pits the three seed against the winner of the six versus eleven matchup. The three seed is Russia, the six the mighty Canadians. That means Crosby will meet Ovechkin, not in the finals, as many predicted, but in the quarterfinals. That means that one of these two powers will leave without a medal. The winner then gets Sweden. If it is Canada, it will be their third game in four days, all against teams (Germany, Russia and Sweden) chocked full of NHL talent.

Sure, you wouldn’t bet against them in any of those games, but it is a hell of a road to the finals for the Canucks. Sure, it may not have been an elimination game, but it certainly had a huge effect on how the rest of the tournament will play out.

The end result is phenomenal. We have to be the prohibitive favorite to roll to the finals, and the competition is to see who will meet us there. I couldn’t be happier. Is this what it feels like to be Canadian?

Power Rankings

Since there are only 12 teams, there is no use for a top 8 bottom 8, rather they will just go together here. This isn’t any sort of prediction, just a ranking of how each team has looked so far.

12. Latvia- Thus far, they have been unable to keep a game close.

11. Germany- A disappointing showing, not getting a point and falling to Belarus. They have a good goalie in Thomas Greiss, and a few good NHL players. They should be better than this.

10. Norway- They hung with the United States and Canada for longer than anyone could have expected, and took the Swiss to OT. So far it has been a successful tournament without a doubt for the realistic Norway fan.

9. Belarus- They gave Sweden a game, but they haven’t really threatened anyone and the United States would love to see them rather than the Swiss, believe you me.

8. Switzerland- Their play in the preliminary round was a step above the 9-12 teams. Ironically, the game that they won was their least impressive.

7. Finland- The Finnish looked downright punchless against Sweden. Once again from a USA perspective, I’d rather see them than the Czechs.

6. Czech Republic- Played Russia tight, they just don’t have a very impressive roster though.

5. Slovakia- The most underrated talent team in the tournament. Way less suprising to see them beat Russia than many would have you belive.

4. Canada- They have the best roster, but Norway played them tight for half the game (a lot considering that, well, it is Norway), the Swiss took them to a shootout, and the Americans took them down. They really shouldn’t be this high based on performance, but I cant justify leaving them out of the top four while they are mathematically alive in the tournament.

3. Russia- Need to see a little bit more. Their only convincing performance was against Latvia. I think that their lack of talent at defenseman will come to hurt them, it is just a matter of when.

2. Sweden- Survived a scare against the Belarus team and took care of business in a weak pool.

1. USA- They are the 1 seed, have the most impressive win by a country mile, and went undefeated. Done deal.

Top 8, Bottom Eight

Since I just did power rankings, we’ll step away from hockey, assigning the downs to the sports that I could do without, and the ups to the winter Olympic sports I am enjoying.

On the Down

8.Louge/Skeleton/Bobsled- I actually don’t mind watching it that much, it is just that every run looks exactly the same, and it basically comes down to gravity. You could watch ten runs without commentary or graphics, and unless someone crashed, have no idea who came in where.

7. Biathalon- Have had lengthy debates about this one. My buddy is enthralled by the skill it takes to steady your heart to steady your gun and is impressed by the athleticism. I agree with all of that, but

6. Ski Jumping (Judged)- Fundamentally opposed to anything that is judged being in the Olympics. That makes it a show, not a sport.

5. Snowboarding (half pipe)- I snowboard. I like snowboarding. But I’m against this. People complain a lot about it being “not in the Olympic spirit” or an excuse for the Americans to rake medals. Neither of those things bothers me, but like I said, if it is judged, it isn’t a sport I can get behind.

4. Freestyle Skiing- see above.


2. Figure Skating- The games are geared towards women, I get that, and the commercials make it clear, but how is this interesting? I just don’t get it.

1. Ice Dancing- I can’t tell the difference between these two, and I don’t care to. And it was on over hockey….

On the Up

8. Ski Jumping (Distance)- Actually, ski jumping is just one event, with judging and distance combined for the score, but I really wish they could just ditch the judging. The guy who goes farthest wins. Why wouldn’t that work?

7. Snowboard Cross- Super exciting races, but more importantly, unlike the half pipe, someone wins!

6. Skiing (Slalom, GS, Super G)- Skiing is, in my opinion, the staple of the winter games, and I just don’t understand how people can point to the figure skating over it as the quintessential event.

5. Curling- The strategy! The theater! Ok, so it isn’t the most exciting sport, but you can’t tell me it isn’t bizarrely interesting.

4. Speed Skating- I can’t really explain it, maybe it is because I grew up taking power skating lessons, but I love watching the skaters fly around the ice. On the other hand it is an awkward conflict, wanting to root for America, but being unable to root for Apalo Ohno, who I can’t get behind.

3. Women’s Hockey- It is slower, not as skilled, there is no hitting, and the level of competition is ridiculously lopsided unless the United States is playing Canada. It is also proof that if USA Hockey is involved, I’m in. I have watched every game.

2. Skiing (Downhill)- All the skiing is good, like I said in the number six spot, and the downhill is by far the best event. The speed is incredible.

1. Men’s Hockey- Obviously.

Looking Ahead- Projecting the Medal Rounds

Just for fun, let’s run through the remainder of the games, and project the results, NCAA tournaments style.

Starting in the qualifying round, I hate to go chalk, but I just don’t see an upset here. Latvia looked hapless in the first round (sorry Kris and Regnars), and the Czechs should have no problem in round one. The Germans have, as I mentioned, NHL talent in Greiss, Christian Ehrhoff, Marcel Goc, Dennis Seidenberg and Marco Sturm. They are really too talented tobe the eleven seed, and would be a dangerous matchup for some teams. There is no way that Canada is going out to them, though.

Rounding things out, Slovakia has way too much talent to be taken out by Norway. The most interesting game, then is probably the Belarus-Switzerland game (I don’t ever include 8-9s as upsets, so either way is chalk). Both had similar first rounds, winning the other non-elite nation in their pool, and bringing a power to the brink. I am going to go with offensive potential in the Kostitsyns and Mikhail Grabovski over the goaltending of Jonas Hiller, and pick the Belarusians to face the Americans in round two.

Moving on to round two, the brackets will go unchanged, not only because I see it going pretty chalk, but also because the tournament does not reseed (America, as the 1, gets the 8-9 winner, even if the 11 seed were to win and be the bottom team). That leaves the Americans against the Belarusians, and I’m going with the States in an easy decision there. The two seed, Sweden, would then play the Slovakians. I would love to go with Slovakia here, and I think that they have a legitimate chance to take down the 2006 champs, but in what is essentially a tossup, I’ll give Sweden with the extra rest (and more importantly, extra practice) the edge, although it pains me to do so.

Squaring off to face the Americans in the semifinals, would then be the Czechs and the Finish. I thought that Finland looked terrible in the prelims. I was completely unimpressed. Much like America in 2006, they appear to be between two generations of national teams, leaving goaltending depth (Mikka Kipprusoff, Niklas Backstrom, Tukka Rask, Antti Niemi, Antero Nittymaki, Pekka Rinne and Vesa Toskala are all Finish) as their greatest strength. Unfortunately, they can only play one, so that isn’t an advantage at all. The Czechs don’t have their strongest team ever, either, but they have played well in a tough pool, beating a tough Slovakia, and hanging with the power, Russia. I still don’t like their lack of scoring, but Vokun has been good, and I like their back end, so I think that they will face the Americans in the semis.

Finally, you have the game that everyone wants to see. Crosby! Ovechkin! It’s the Olympic… quarterfinals? Well, that is what it comes down to. The top two teams in the world (according to the IIHF rankings) will face off, and the loser will go home. Empty handed. Without a medal. I have said for a long time, that the Russian defense core is weak. It is. They rely on Dimitri Kalinin, an average NHLer at best before he fled for Russia. Sergei Gonchar is still a solid anchor, but he is up there in years, more so than you would like for your number one guy, as Gonchar is for the Russians.

To me, this doesn’t mean that the Russians are going to give up 5 goals a game. Team defense comes down to so many things, and most of their guys are capable defenders. The problem that I think that they are going to find, is rather in that as talented as their forwards are, the other forwards in this tournament are also elite. As such, the Russians can’t reasonably expect to control the play the entire game. While they will be capable of handling the attack, since like I said they have decent defenders and good goaltending, the point where their lack of talent on the back end will come in the transition game. There is a reason that the Russian offense struggled against a good Slovakia team, and against the Czechs (5 goals in 2 games before an empty netter isn’t what you would expect from the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Kovalchuk and company).

I am a big believer that while all six guys on the ice have a large say in goals against average, and that defense is played as a unit, I also think that defenseman is the most important position on the ice. Defensemen, unlike forwards, face the play at all times, and can control it in a way forwards can’t. Against Latvia, Russia was dominant. Their forwards were able to control the puck, cycle it, and control the play. There was little to no need for a transition game. In more evenly matched games, defensemen are relied upon on the breakout, regrouping the puck, and facilitating offense. The term puck moving defenseman is used a lot. Elite ones are rare, but good ones are key. They control the play with D to D passes, start the rush with outlet passes, and create opportunities by rushing the puck and finding forwards. Without them, it is hard to create offense. This is where Russia will struggle.

They are the only elite team in the tournament without a good puck moving defenseman (The Czechs have Thomas Kaberle, the Canadians have 6, the Americans have Ryan Suter, Erick and Jack Johnson, and Brian Rafalski, the Slovaks have Zedeno Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky, the Swedes have Lindstrom, and the Finish are the weakest of the bunch with Kimmo Timonen, , but I would take all of them over Andre Markov and Gonchar, the Russians best options and I would even take the German’s option in Christian Ehrhoff, who moved the puck really well in San Jose and continues to do so in Van). Even the goals they score have come off of plays like Ovechkins hit on Jagr, where there was a turnover and a rush, not a manufactured play involving their D moving the puck. This hurt them against Slovakia, and despite their incredible fire power, I think it will do the same against Canada, and they will go out early.

That leaves us with the semifinal matchups. Canada will face Sweden, and the USA will play the Czechs. It seems premature, though, to project that now. That will be edition three, which I will post on Thursday, looking back at the first two rounds and ahead at the 4 team final. Until then, enjoy it America.

Speaking of enjoy it, I leave you with this: