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:

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