Sunday, February 21, 2010

All Things (Olympic) Hockey: Part 1

I have a hard and fast rule in life that I just made up. Every time that I have a couple of hours on a train on what could very well be the best hockey day we will see for years, I have to break out the old typewriter and figure out something to say.

Now, that seems like a grandiose statement, and you’re right to think that, because I am, of course typing on a laptop, not a typewriter. It was a joke. It isn’t 1984, I mean this is a blog that is on the internet so of course I don’t have a bottle of white out at my side in case I hit the wrong stroke.

The other part of that statement, though, is even more profound, and I stand by it. This Sunday, the 21st of February, is perhaps the best slate of games, Olympic, NHL, college or otherwise that we have seen any time in the recent past, and unless they decide to move back the championship game for the IIHF World Championships by about a month, and the Frozen Four back about 3 to correspond with the Stanley Cup Finals, it is the best day that we are bound to see anytime soon. Consider the following about the three games:

- First of all, the pure games are incredible. The Czechs versus the Russians, the Swedes versus the Fins, and the good guys versus the bad guys, er, uh, USA versus Canada are all great games no matter the circumstances or jerseys.

- The circumstances and jerseys help though. First of all, the rivalries are there to add intrigue. USA versus Canada pits the two geographic rivals against each other. They are also the two most populous nations in terms of NHL players in the world. Did I mention that like 99.9% of Canada’s population lives within 50 miles of the US, that Canada has a massive inferiority complex when it comes to America, and that hockey is perhaps the one bastion of pride that they maintain over us here in the States?

- Sweden versus Finland is also an obvious natural rivalry. The pride of Scandinavia is put on the line when these two pace each other. Beyond the natural geographical rivalry, along with the Norwegians, Swedes and Fins make up one of the many groups of people that Americans can’t tell apart. (Just for fun, the other groups include but are not limited to, Peruvians and Argentineans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, and anyone from the Middle East. USA! USA!)

- Russia versus the Czechs is a much less obvious geographical rivalry, but is perhaps the most heated politically. If you are one of the aforementioned Americans who can’t tell Norway from Sweden from Finland (Sweden is a longstanding neutral nation since the imperial reign of King Gustav although they are much less known for this than the Swiss, is perhaps the most successful social state in the history of the world, although they maintain some free markets mixed with a gigantic public sector, Finland fought a long political battle not to become a Soviet state, has been a political battleground between capitalism and communism, and has had a difficult recovery from the fall of the USSR, and Norway is where the 1992 Olympics were…remember, I am on a train right now. That was off the top of my head, apart from the Norway bit, don’t act like you’re not impressed), and therefore don’t know what the rivalry between the Czechs and Russians could be about, look up why Jaromir Jagr wears #68. Or just read this…Prague was occupied by the Soviets from the end of World War II, until 1968 when the Czechs (then the C zechoslovakians) fought off the Russians to avoid becoming a Soviet State, although like Finland, the Czech Republic was very much the front line of the Cold War (or as I call it, they Olympic Gift that Keeps On Giving…not one shot was fired between the USA and Russia, but we get generations of manufactured storylines. What could be better?)

- Perhaps most intriguingly, these are the last three Gold Medal games. Torino, Nogano and Salt Lake City failed to see one repeat Gold or Silver Medalist. The Russians lost to the Czechs in 1998, the Canadians stole it from America (still bitter) in 2002, and Sweden beat Finland in a bizarre (and oddly forgettable) 2006 tournament. That can only mean one thing: this year’s gold medal game will be Slovakia against Switzerland.

- Finally, what ties it all up, is that there is a fairly valid criticism of the Olympic tournament, that the opening round is essentially meaningless. No one actually gets eliminated from the Olympics (Olyminated, if you will), rather the games are simply for seeding. Not the case here. The winner of the three pools (A: USA, Canada, Switzerland and Norway, B: Sweden, Finland, Belarus and Germany, C: Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Latvia) get a bye, as well as the team with the most points, or else the tiebreaker (head to head, goal differential, and so on). On the day of rivalries, all three games have bye implications. For the USA and Canada, the winner simply moves to the quarter finals. If Canada loses, since they only got two points for the shootout win, they will play in the first round. If the USA goes down, they will have a shot at the at large bye, although as you will see, all hell will break lose in that no matter what. As for Sweden Finland, it is also a simple winner goes on, although either loser would likely get into the tie breaker. Pool C is the messy one. If the Czechs win, they move on. If that is the case, the Russians would likely move into the 4th slot, their only loss being in a SO, unless another game goes into OT, in which case those two teams would move into a tie. If the Russians win, they go into the quarters despite the loss to Slovakia (I think), and my head starts to hurt figuring out who gets the 4 slot.

So there you go. It is about as great a day for hockey as you could ask for today. If you saw the title of the post though, you noticed that this does indeed mark the return of all things hockey. We are going to go ahead and ignore the hiatus-ed NHL for now, and break down the Olympic tournament, what we have seen and what we have to look forward to.

The Returns

Perhaps the most interesting development for me has been the influx of quality players in this tournament that don’t come from the NHL. Gone are the days that the players from Europe are guys who couldn’t make it as NHL role players. Many of the KHL guys could be successful NHL players. Only two (won’t say names yet) would be stars, but many could hold a spot on a roster. In 2006, before the Kontinental league became a success, I don’t think that this was the case. Now, half of the Russian team plays close to home, and not because they have to.

The two most intriguing figures that make up this group of non-NHLers are familiar faces. Peter Forsberg and Jaromir Jagr are both making their returns to North America, after a couple of years on the continent, Jagr playing for Omsk in Russia, and Forsberg, who is with Modo in Sweden, both left a couple of years before they were done playing, and have enjoyed a level of success in Europe.

Because they share a circumstance, they have been lumped together in much of the Olympic coverage, although I don’t think that they should be. Jagr has looked great in this tournament. He is playing at a high level in the K, and was the best player on the ice in my opinion for the Czechs against the Slovakians. Should he chose to play in the NHL again, I think Jagr could be a successful player steside once again, although at 38, the clock is ticking.

Forsberg, sadly, seems to have lost a step. He is by no means the best player on a talented Swedish team, and probably couldn’t be much resembling the player he once was in the NHL. Jagr would be one of the guys I would consider a star if he returned to the NHL, but Forsberg looks a little too beaten up to be considered in that light.

That leaves one other star that isn’t playing in the NHL, and that is another former NHL player, this one who went home, if anything, before his prime. Alexander Radulov was on his way to becoming a star with the Predators before he decided to go home to play in Russia. He seems not to have taken any steps back in his development since leaving the NHL though. Rather, he has developed and looks right at home amongst the star studded Russian line up. Hopefully, he will see fit to return to the NHL, and you can bet he will be a hot commodity when he does.

Finally, on the other hand—not so much related to Forsberg, Radulov or Jagr, Russia has, in my opinion, taken way too many KHL players. A desire to show off their shiny new national league has led to them compromising their national team by passing up more talented NHLers. I really believe that they will come to regret this, since their team I definitely weakened by it.

Goaltending: A Worldwide Phenomenon

There was a time when the Russians had a great goaltender in Tretiak, the Americans would produce a goalie here and there, and Quebec produced the majority of the world class netminders. Those days are over. Sweden boasts a goalie who has led the NHL in many statistical categories, in Henrick Lundqvist, the United States does as well, in Ryan Miller, Canada is still world class with Roberto Luongo (though less so with Martin Brodeur), and even teams like the Swiss (Jonas Hiller), Germans (Thomas Greiss, look him up he has been great as the Sharks’ backup) and Norwegians who have gotten great play from a guy we haven’t heard of, all have seen great play in net.

This is serving as a serious equalizer in the tournament. If Jonas Hiller, an elite NHLer doesn’t backstop the Swiss, they are never hanging with the Canadians. The level of goaltending is stellar for every team in the tournament, and it really does mean that any team can hang with any other team on a given night.

Flag Waving Homer Note of the Week: The USA so far

Basically, the USA has been pretty good so far. It has been hard to find too much wrong with the way they took care of Switzerland, especially following their taking Canada to the wire, and their handling of Norway. Really, the preliminary round of the tournament will be judged on today’s performance against Canada, but that isn’t to say I can’t find a few things to say about the first two tilts.

Against Switzerland, even though the score suggested a fairly evenly played game, I was pretty happy with the effort. Jonas Hiller was causing some painful Déjà vu for me as a Sharks fan, when he stood on his head to hold an inferior team in a game. The shots didn’t show it, but the Americans controlled the play against the Swiss attack, and had way more quality scoring opportunities than the Swiss, who scarcely tested Miller. These feelings were re-affirmed when Switzerland forced Canada to the shootout.

Against Norway, it was hard to be pleased with the first two periods. The scrappy Norwegian team kept it close, and caused a breakdown on the power play to make it a game, at 3-1 after 2 periods. I was pretty encouraged though, the way that the USA managed to pour it on when they took over in the third period. It bodes well, in my opinion, for the rest of the tourney. The main concern is the amount of odd man rushes that the USA gave up. Defensemen were downright careless with their pinching. I wouldn’t be the first, second, or hundredth person to point this out, it has been the main criticism of Ron Wilson’s squad, but it is true, and bears repeating. I think this was largely a symptom of them trying to get involved offensively against an inferior team, but it goes without saying that they can’t let that happen against Canada, or in the Medal Rounds. Barry Melrose said it best, when he pointed out that the five two on ones that the USA gave up probably wouldn’t be five goals against Canada, but it could easily be three, more than enough to swing the game.

Really, though, none of it matters. Those are essentially Ws, and are in the bank. Like I said, this team’s preliminary round will be judged tonight against Canada.

Finally, a prediction, I believe is in order. My head says that Canada is deeper, and has much more star power with scoring. My heart is too busy chanting "USA! USA! USA!" to stop and make a prediction. Screw it, I'll go with it. USA 4 USSR, er, I mean, Canada 3.

That's it for part 1, which I wanted to get up for gametime. Enjoy the battle, and look for part 2 tonight or tomorrow morning, complete with reactions to tonights games, as well as the usual clutter that makes up All Things Hockey.

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