February 20 2014 09:21AM
1. The Latvians
That was one hell of a thing.
Around the time the U.S. scored its final goal against Ondrej Pavelec to go up 4-1, I decided to switch over to the game that was far closer and therefore more interesting: Canada and Latvia. It should not, of course, had been either close or interesting. It should have been a bloodbath. And it's Canada's fault that it wasn't.
Sure, you can say that the Latvian goaltender stood on his head and the team turned in a cogent defensive performance, but the fact that the game finished 2-1 was entirely down to a lack of execution by the Canadians and continued horrible roster selection by Mike Babcock. Anyone who watched this game and isn't trying to delude themselves would tell you that though Kristers Gudlevskis stopped 55 of 57, the Canadians didn't exactly make it tough on him. He was very good, but a .965 save percentage in the game belied the true caliber of his performance.
Still, though, what a game, as the Latvians even had a few chances with the goalie pulled — and frankly they waited too long to yank him — and Carey Price was actually pretty impressive in stopping 15 of 16 in what had to be a trying game; he could have slept through long stretches of the third and no one would have even noticed, or if they had, really been able to blame him.
There are now officially a lot of questions about this Canadian team, because they continue to get almost no offense from their forwards. Patrick Sharp opened the scoring in the game, but it was just the fifth goal from a Canadian forward in the four games so far. Three of the other ones belong to Jeff Carter. Meanwhile, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty have a combined five. Worrisome stuff, nervy though it was against a vastly inferior opponent, but at least they got the W. Now none of it matters. The slate, presumably, has been wiped clean.
But man, Canada fretting over an Olympic result against Latvia? Never thought I'd see the day.
However, there is one group that should be deeply sad about the way the Latvians played these last few games: Buffalo Sabres fans. They're gonna be stuck with Ted Nolan for years based only on what he did in Sochi.
2. A rematch
It doesn't help that the Canadians' next opponent is the Americans, who have already given them a run for their money in past tournaments and look for all the world like the most impressive group in this one so far. There's room for criticism with that squad too, of course, because giving significant minutes to Brooks Orpik (just for example) (and it's 15:48 a game, for the record) seems a very foolish way to play against perhaps the most talented hockey team ever assembled, save for the inclusion of Chris Kunitz.
the biggest criticism you could level against the U.S. is that up
until the Czech game, they'd really been a one-line team. Phil
Kessel, Joe Pavelski, and James van Riemsdyk have run roughshod on
every goalie and defense they've come across, piling up seven goals
between them in four games, all but one at even-strength. That's
terrifying efficiency, but that was about it for the American
offense, more or less. Ryan Kesler, David Backes, Dustin Brown, and
Paul Stastny had all chipped in a little, but not as much as Dan
Bylsma, for instance, probably would have liked. That is, until the
David Backes unit stuck a knife in the Czech defense's gut and made
them pay in some way or another just about every time they took the
ice. Even as they were supposed to be focused on shutting down the
Jaromir Jagr line, they got forward, played physical, and scored
goals. Two of them, to be exact. They quickly made the game a
Now, of course, Canada's not the Czech Republic. They're good and deep everywhere. But then, the U.S. is worlds better than Latvia, and so maybe it's all at cross purposes anyway. These games really didn't tell us very much about either team except that they could be unlucky (in Canada's case) or beat up on one of the worst NHL goalies of his era (in America's).
3. The other bracket
in the other semifinal, you have the second-biggest hockey rivalry in
the world, and it too is likely one of those “too close to call”
scenarios. Sweden won the group stage outright, in terms of seeding,
but didn't look all that great doing it. They spent too much time
relying on a thunderous power play and not much else, suffering
significant injuries, and having games be far closer than they should
On the other side of the ice there's the Finns, who looked mighty impressive in all parts of the ice to dispatch the host Russian side and bring me great personal joy. They've done almost exactly as well as I would have expected, as I figured they were a toss-up with the Russians to push through to this level of the tournament.
I've already seen both teams described as the underdogs in this game — including Teemu Selanne self-identifying as such (at least through the eyes of non-partisan observers) — and while normally you'd say that's just both sides sandbagging, in this case I'm not so sure. Finland on paper shouldn't beat the Swedes. But Sweden's been playing like garbage for basically the entire tournament, save for yesterday's result, for which 5-0 isn't necessarily all that impressive considering they played Slovenia, which has like six players on it.
This game will be super-interesting, and one of these bitter rivals will be playing for gold, so Sami Lepisto might bring brass knuckles to put in his gloves. Can't wait.
I cannot even begin to tell you how much it pleases me as a reasonable person to watch the Russians get it handed to them on home ice. All that stuff Putin said about this entire $51 billion Olympic price tag having been worth it if they win gold? Well, now they're out of both tournaments, and things got so surreal in the postgame press conference that the Russian coach had to say out loud that he wouldn't kill himself over this result.
A lot of this is on the Russian Federation, of course, because of the amount of pressure they put on the team to include as many KHL players as possible. You could have always made a credible argument that Ilya Kovalchuk (obviously) and Alex Radulov belonged on the team even as they cowered in their home country over how tough it is to play in the NHL, but the rest of these guys? They're not better than Nail Yakupov and the several other Russian players in the world's greatest league. Period. You want to point fingers? That's where they go.
5. Are we really learning anything?
But then again, apart from all the people sandbagging the rest of the field just because Russia was the host of this tournament, none of the four remaining teams should strike anyone as a shock.
It must come as no surprise at all that the teams with the most players from the NHL are the four left in the tournament. The Swedes brought one guy from the Swedish Elite League. The Finns had 11 KHL or Finnish league players, but unlike Russia (which had 11 KHLers), they didn't thrush Antti Pihlstrom or Sakari Salminen into roles for which they were not necessarily suited just because of who they happen to play their club hockey for.
Let it be a lesson to all involved in international tournaments going forward: Bringing your best players gives you the best chance to win. Not a hard concept.