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.

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