Five things: Very tense

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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.

Perhaps
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
flat-out joke.

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

Over
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
have been.

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.

4.
Russian disappointment

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.

  • mattyc

    pretty exciting overtime, and respect to our women, but man… the reffing was atrocious, everything from the ref getting in the way, to that ‘slashing’ call on the American, to the breakaway ‘cross-check’

  • mk

    That women’s gold medal game was the best hockey I’ve seen in a while! WOW talk about passion and skill! Go Canada!

    I hope the men’s team can match that intensity. I laugh whenever people say women’s hockey is soft (no hitting or fighting).

    • Avalain

      Can you imagine if that empty net shot actually went in after the linesman (lineswoman? linesperson?) basically checked our defender off the puck?

      That being said, we can’t complain too much about officiating after winning the game on the power play.

  • Colin.S

    The Russians made a lot of errors, way too much KHL influence by having so many KHL player on the team and leaving better NHL players off the team. Also, Ovechkin was averaging only 13 minutes of ice-time and got 18 minutes. None of the stars ever got double shifted because the coached ran all four line and didn’t shuffle any of them.

    Although Canada’s d is rock solid, it will be really hard to stop a lot of talented American forwards. I think it will be the first time they will really feel pressure in their own zone.

    Ted Nolan gets the max out of his players, he got the Latvians to play man on man coverage against Canada. Don’t be surprised if the Sabres pass the Oilers in their rebuild. They’ve been better since he took over.

  • Colin.S

    For a change I agree with many of your 5 points here Ryan. I don’t agree with your opinion of Ted Nolan. Any coach that gets less skilled teams to play fiercely & challenge way better teams is a good coach. Buffalo has played way better since he took over & you have to tip your hat to the Latvians. They play a system within themselves & that gives them a chance to win. Very similar to Hartley here in Calgary, who I hope has earned the last year on his contract & should be the coach of the Calgary Flames in the 2014-15 season.

  • BitGeek

    I’m sure this has been pointed out elsewhere, but I really hate the Canadian White Jersey. It looks like a PetroCanada advertisement.

    How’s that for off topic?

  • beloch

    Canada’s sh% is 7.7% while the US’s is 15.8%. Not all of that is luck. Canada has let themselves get hemmed out of the middle of the offensive zone far too easily. Latvia, for example, definitely did that. However, Canada has been utterly dominant in terms of puck possession and defense. No other team has out-shot their opponents to anywhere near the degree Team Canada has.

    The US has been good and their forwards are getting to the net. They’re playing at peak form and are a dangerous opponent for Canada. However, they haven’t really dominated any of their tougher opponents in terms of possession or shots. If current trends hold, Canada will control the puck more and shoot more than the US will on Friday. However, will they be able to double up on the americans? That’s what they’ll need to do in order to have good odds of winning unless Canada’s forwards start driving to the dirty areas of the ice. If Canada’s forwards do this, the US is going down hard. If they don’t, it will be a very tense game.

    No matter what happens, Friday’s game is likely to be the most important hockey match of the Olympics.

  • Colin.S

    The Russians cared to much about showing off the KHL than they did actually winning this tournament. The fact that bad KHLers saw top 6 ice time or any PP time at all was a sham. As we all learned during the Cervenka experiment. The best players in the KHL(excluding guys like Kovalchuk) are worth about as much as your worst second liners or best third liners in the NHL.

  • Parallex

    “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.”

    This for all teams over and over and over…