Friday, February 26, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Canada vs. Russia, Looking Ahead to Slovakia...


Alex Ovechkin is used to "Rockin' the Red" in Washington but it was a sea of Canadian red that washed over him and the team from the Russian Federation on Wednesday evening. As I wrote in my previous Olympic article, the "real" Team Canada has arrived in the tournament and with four lines firing on all cylinders; the Russian squad was outmatched from the very beginning of the game. Many Canadian hockey fans expected a win on Wednesday, some may have even prayed for a win over their International rivals, but did anyone predict a 7-3 thrashing?

These two teams were expected to meet in the Gold medal game but due to Canada’s slow start in the tournament, they met in the quarter-finals. Not only did the Russian team leave Vancouver empty handed, they left with their tails between their legs. The world’s number one ranked hockey country was absolutely dismantled by Canada, giving the Canadian team their first Olympic victory over the Russians in 50 years. Russia heads home (or back to the NHL as the case may be), to prepare for the 2014 Games and wonder what happened in Vancouver.

Ovechkin was obsessed with defeating Canada in their own rink, going as far as refusing to give interviews to the Canadian media. Was it national pride or a bargaining chip he was after? With NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman undecided about allowing NHL players to participate in the next Olympics, which will be a hotly debated topic during negotiations for the next CBA, Ovechkin would have an argument in his favour if the Russians were the defending Olympic Champions, wanting to retain their title in 2014. Now, he heads home with no medals and an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Team Canada.

So, what went right for the Canadian squad? To put it simply - everything...

After the game against Germany, Team Canada had three lines at full throttle, with only Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash searching for consistency. In a great move by the coaching staff, the red-hot Brenden Morrow moved on to a line with the Anaheim Duck forwards and Nash joined the line of Mike Richards and Jonathan Toews - two other red-hot Canadian players. The results, especially for Russian net minder Evgeni Nabokov, were devastating. The Toews, Richards and Nash line shadowed Russia’s top stars, including Ovechkin, throughout the game, shutting the door on the high-powered Russians. Never fans of playing defence in their own end, the Russians were forced into their own zone repeatedly by the crisp passing and strong skating of the Canadians. Their attempts at the long, stretch passes they are famous for were thwarted by the Canadain defenders at every opportunity.

Ryan Getzlaf got the party started at 2:51 of the first period on a goal assisted by Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle. With Morrow on their line, Perry and Getzlaf accumulated six points as a line (four goals and two assists). The newly formed trio of Toews, Richards and Nash accounted for one goal and three assists, while keeping Ovechkin off the score-sheet. The “Shark Attack” line had their quietest night of the tournament with only three assists but fellow Shark, Dan Boyle, found his game with a goal and two assists. Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and the seldom-used Patrice Bergeron were the only Canadian forwards without a point in the contest. Did anyone have Jonathan Toews in their hockey pool? His seven points has him in a tie for the tournament lead with Heatley, and Slovakian forwards, Pavol Demitra and Marian Hossa.

When two teams are so evenly matched on paper, as was the case with Russia and Canada, someone must find an edge and propel their team to victory. For Canada, the edge they had over the Russians was heart; no one wants a Gold medal in this tournament more then Team Canada - it is as simple as that. They outplayed, out-hit and dismantled a Russian Team that was supposed to be a super-power. They accomplished the feat with their own abilities and a whole lot of heart.

Looking Ahead:

A day off yesterday brings us to tonight’s match-up against a tough and surprising Slovakian team. Led by Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak and some incredible forwards of their own, Slovakia has emerged as a contender, fighting their way into the semi-finals. With former NHL great, Peter Bondra at the helm as GM, the Slovaks are a mix of NHL and European players. Their top line is formidable, with the likes of Hossa, Gaborik and Demitra and on defence, they have the Big Z, Zdeno Chara, but looking deeper into the roster, they are nowhere near the talent level of the Canadian squad.

Like the Russian team, Slovakia will not want to spend much time in the defensive zone. Canada must continue their high-octane forecheck, making the defenceman pay for every inch of ice. Once again, staying out of the penalty box is a key to a Canadian victory. Although the Canadians have more depth, the Slovakian power play can be difficult to contain, especially Chara’s bombs from the point. Canada must avoid screening Roberto Luongo, allowing him to see anything coming his way, launched from Chara’s stick.

Much has been made of Halak’s fine play in the tournament and his strong efforts with the Montreal Canadiens this season, stopping 40 shots on a regular basis in the NHL. However, he is not facing an NHL team filled with fourth line grinders and checkers - this is Team Canada. Halak has a 1.97 goals against average in the tournament and a .923 save percentage, but he has never faced a team as stacked as the Canadian roster is - he will be hard-pressed to keep his team in the game.

Inspired by the words of GM Steve Yzerman during the early portion of the tournament to stay the course and keep playing a Canadian brand of hockey, the stars on Team Canada have grown under the guidance of their coaching staff and the confidence Mike Babcock and his staff have in the team. Once again, it could come down to who wants the win more..., which leaves us with only choice in predicting a winner - Team Canada.

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

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