Monday, February 22, 2010

Oh, Canada

Like many American hockey fans, I'm still reveling in the joy of last night's US win over Canada. It was a great game to watch and not only because of the outcome. The high level of play and intensity made for tremendous hockey. It was like watching an NHL All Star where the players actually cared deeply about the result and were willing to do whatever was necessary--laying out a hit, blocking a shot--to win. It was also nice to see the professional athletes on both sides so passionate about playing a game that they aren't getting a dime for. National pride definitely still does matter to these guys.

On the US side, the win provides a huge confidence boost for a young team. Beating the powerhouse Canadians on their home ice proves that if the Americans play their game and work hard, the can beat anyone. Such confidence will be needed when (and if) the US reaches the semis and finals and will likely have to face Finland, Russia, Sweden, or maybe even Team Canada again. This is probably even more important than securing the number one seed. Obviously having a day off and getting an easier opponent in the quarterfinals will help Team USA, but the road to gold is still going to be a very rough one and knowing that you can beat an incredible team like Canada is going to go a long ways to convince these guys that they can get there.

A number of players had excellent games for the US last night. Miller, Rafalski, and Kesler come immediately to mind. (Quick aside--I was watching the game with my wife and kids last night. When Kesler scored the open netter by diving around the Canadian player to swat the puck in, my reaction was to jump up and blurt out, "What a freakin' play!" Except I didn't say freakin'. Thankfully, I think the kids weren't really paying close to attention to me or that game by that point.) One guy who was particularly impressive in my eyes even though his name didn't appear on the score sheet--except for a questionable penalty--was Patrick Kane. There were a couple of times when the twenty-one-year-old kid had the puck and was weaving around to create space where he appeared to be the best player on either team. Yes, that includes THE Kid too, who despite having a goal ended up being minus three for the game.

The only possible downside of last night's victory is that I question whether the US can repeat that magic against Canada if they face them again. Beating Canada once on their home ice was unexpected. Beating them twice might be impossible. Can you really expect Ryan Miller to stand on his head and shut down the powerful Canadian attack again? I wouldn't count on it. If the US is going to taste gold, they might need some help to knock the Canadian giant out.

On the Canadian side, the loss only increases the immense pressure that this team was already under to win the gold. Despite all their previous NHL playoff and Olympic experience, including multiple Stanley Cups, there were already signs that the Canadian squad was tightening up when they faced Switzerland in their second game. The talent on the Canadian roster is amazing and when they get it going, they play spectacular hockey. But when they're in close games and especially when they're behind, that hockey becomes more forced than flowing.

One of the keys to the US victory was getting that first goal so early in the game. And then, when the Canadians tied it up, to answer almost immediately with another goal to reestablish the lead. If the Canadians get up 2-0 against any team in the tournament, it might be lights out. When they're in control, they're confident and the crowd is behind them. But put them in a hole early and you put the pressure on them. And again, despite all the experience, talent, and accomplishments of the Canadian players, that pressure is real and it seems to matter.

But with all the wailing and gnashing of teeth going on today among our friends to the North (which is actually audible here in border states if you listen closely), there's no reason for Canadian fans to panic yet. The reality is that they outplayed the US for a good part of the game and if Ryan Miller hadn't been stellar between the pipes, the Canadians could easily have won it. They have a more talented team and usually when talent is given the opportunity, it comes out on top. If the Canadian players don't let the pressure get to them, there is no reason this team can't come back and win the gold. They've got to win four games now to achieve that goal, but when you look at that roster you see that they have just the team to do it.

Having said that, one interesting angle that is probably the subject of much discussion in Canada today is the goaltender question. Which goalie is most likely to lead Canada to gold? Last night was not Martin Brodeur's finest moment. It's not as if the goals that he gave up were that bad, it's just that he didn't seem to be able to make enough of the big saves when he needed to. This could be partially due to the fact that a few members of the US team are very familiar with him. Parise and Lagenbrunner are currently teammates of Brodeur's on the Devils and Rafalski played with him in New Jersey for many years as well. It was obvious that the US had a plan for how to deal with Brodeur's proclivity for handling the puck and used that to their advantage on more than one occasion. If the US and Canada were to meet again down the road, it wouldn't shock me to see Roberto Luongo in net for the Canadians. Who will play against other teams may also be an open question.

Not that it will likely matter much in Canada's next game. With the US, Sweden, Russia, and Finland getting the top four spots and a bye, here are the matchups for the qualification playoffs tomorrow:

#8 Switzerland vs #9 Belarus

#7 Slovakia vs #10 Norway

#6 Canada vs #11 Germany

#5 Czech Republic vs #12 Latvia

If things go as expected and the higher seeds win, the quarterfinals on Wednesday would look like this:

#1 United States vs #8 Switzerland

#2 Sweden vs #7 Slovakia

#3 Russia vs #6 Canada

#4 Finland vs #5 Czech Republic

The US would be facing the pesky Swiss for the second time after defeating them 3-1 in their first game. It would not be an easy game given the Swiss style and the goaltending they've been getting from Hiller.

The Canada-Russia contest could be a great one. I don't expect that beating German will take too much out of the Canadians and they should be geared up to take on the Russkies at home.

The other two games should also be hard fought contests. Slovakia might not have quite the talent of Sweden, but in a one game elimination format anything can happen.

Last night was a good way to start what should be a splendid week of hockey.

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