Saturday, February 27, 2010

Olympic Thoughts... Canada vs. Slovakia, Looking Ahead to Team USA

Canadian hockey fans got a little drama with their hockey last night, as Team Slovakia and Team Canada battled for a place in the Gold medal game at the 2010 Olympics. Canada eventually emerged with a 3-2 victory, but the team from Slovakia earned the respect of the Canadian players and fans by charging back from a 3-0 deficit with two goals on twelve shots in the third period. If not for a remarkable save by Roberto Luongo with eight seconds left on the clock, on a shot by his Vancouver teammate Pavol Demitra, this game could still be in overtime.

The veteran team from Slovakia, with a good mix of NHL and European players, continued playing a style of game they are famous for in these tournaments, not going on the offensive, sitting back, lulling their opposition into complacency and then pouncing on their mistakes. Unlike the USA/Finland game earlier in the day, which ended with a 6-1 score in favour of the Americans, the Canada/Slovakia game was a solid effort by both teams, making for an exciting finish.

The “Shark Attack” line opened the scoring in the first period on a goal by Patrick Marleau, his second of the tournament and the line of Morrow, Getzlaf and Perry continued their fine play, with Morrow and Getzlaf scoring Canada’s second and third goals. Held pointless by the team from Slovakia, the Richards, Nash and Toews line still performed admirably, with Richards bouncing off several Slovak players, Nash throwing some sound body checks in the offensive zone and Toews even trying to bring down the man/mountain known as Zdeno Chara. Toews ended up on the ice by the way, while Chara stood his ground; still though, it was an admirable attempt, taking on the Boston Bruins giant.

The line of Crosby, Staal and Iginla were without a goal for the second game in a row but they were very effective in the early part of the third period, playing deep within the Slovak zone, attempting to score the fourth Canadian goal. During the early moments of the third period, I remarked to a friend that Canada had better get a fourth goal or else things could get interesting, and they certainly did, as Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak held his ground, refusing to let that fourth goal slip past him. Canadian fans are concerned by the lack of scoring from Crosby in the past two games but that is the remarkable aspect of this incarnation of Team Canada; someone has been able and willing to step up every game, Crosby’s best effort may come in the Gold medal game. Even when he is held off the score-sheet though, he is incredibly dangerous and garners the full attention of the oppositions best lines, leaving the “Shark Attack” to play against the weaker third and fourth lines as was the case last night.

While the focus here at TVOS has been on the forwards, let’s take a moment to look at Team Canada’s defence. Although he started the tournament a little shaky, Philadelphia Flyers D-man Chris Pronger has become the solid, calming influence on the blue line that he was expected to be, picking up his fourth and fifth assist in last night’s game. His pass from behind the net that set up the first goal against the Russians was stellar, vintage Pronger, settling the puck down behind the Canadian net and then making a crisp pass up the ice. Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith have played light’s out hockey, especially Doughty, and their play gives all hockey fans a reminder - if you are not staying up late to watch games from the NHL’s Western Conference, you are missing out on some tremendous young all-stars. In the tournament, the seven Canadian defenceman have combined for 4 goals and 24 assists, a remarkable contribution from the blue line.

Looking Ahead:

So, here we are, about to discuss the Gold medal game between Canada and the United States; the match-up that many hoped for and worried about. When facing Team Canada, the common theme amongst their opponents is to survive the first ten minutes and take it from there. Against Slovakia however, Team Canada appeared tentative at times in the first period, perhaps looking ahead to the Gold medal final. Both teams are claiming underdog status heading into the final game of the tournament, as Team USA defeated Canada by a 5-3 score earlier in the tournament, Canada can claim the pressure is on the Americans, after all, they have already defeated Canada in this tournament. Team USA can claim the underdog role, simply by the looking at the roster of Team Canada, saying it was their tournament to win all along and being on home soil, the pressures and the role of favourites, fall to them.

In their first meeting of the tournament, Team USA took advantage of some timely and costly giveaways by Team Canada. However, the young Americans will face a different team in Sunday’s Gold medal game, a much more cohesive and defensively minded squad with all four lines playing responsible and effective hockey. Once again the focus will be on the goaltenders, Ryan Miller of the US and Roberto Luongo for Canada. Miller has been one of the top stories in this tournament, as many analysts expected. The top goaltender in the NHL this season, he has continued his solid play at the Olympics. Miller is 5-0 with a 1.04 goals against average and a .954 save percentage.

The forwards for Team USA have also begun to roll through their opposition. Zach Parise and Ryan Malone have combined for six goals and six assists and Patrick Kane finally found the net against the Finns, scoring two goals to give him three during the Games. The unsung hero for Team USA has to be defenceman Brian Rafalski. His four goals lead the team, as does his total of eight points. He was an integral part in the first meeting between these teams, leading the charge for Team USA with two goals and one assist in the victory over Martin Brodeur. There is little doubt he will receive a little extra attention in the Gold medal game.

One thing to watch during Sunday’s game is the connection between some American players and the Canadian coaches. Rafalski plays for Mike Babcock in Detroit, Ryan Miller is one of Lindy Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres and Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise are part of Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils squad. Besides the thrill of defeating Canada on Canadian soil, all these players would love to bring a Gold medal back to the NHL and compare them with their Head Coach’s Silver medal.

What can we expect on Sunday? Well, to be honest, who knows? Both teams will be desperate for the win and the title of hockey supremacy that comes along with a Gold medal. The difference will lie in the depth of the teams. Canada is a stronger, deeper team, but the Americans did not get to this point by accident; they are an equally inspired group. In a seven game series, there is little doubt that Canada would emerge victorious; in a winner takes all game, anything can happen and it usually does. This game could be a 4-3 or 3-2 nail biter or it could become a lopsided affair if one team gains an early lead and the other must take some chances in an attempt to get back into the game. Let’s just hope the right team wins eh? I think you know who I am talking aboot...

Photo by tyfn on Flickr.

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