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.

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