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February 19, 2010

Olympic Hockey Tournament Update

First two general notes on the Olympics….

The US is kicking ass. Right now the US leads in the medal count with 15 total and lead in number of events won (5 Gold, 4 Silver, 6 Bronze) compare that to the total of 25 in Turin (9/6/7) and we’re not even a full week into completion.

USA! USA! USA!

Unfortunately, we suck at Curling. Both the men and women are winless having played 4 games each. The men’s team is particularly troubling since they had the chance to win each game on the last shot and the “Skip” John Shuster has blown each one. I enjoy the game and think it’s great it’s the “it” sport but this is America, you have to win or people won’t find it interesting for very long.

Now, the most important sport at the games…hockey.

The US played their second game of the tourney and beat Norway 6-1. Don’t be fooled by the score, the game was closer than that. The US scored 3 goals in the last 5:30 of the game when Norway just ran out of gas.

As in the first game there were far too many defensive lapses. Only timely saves by goalie Ryan Miller and a general lack of scoring skill on the Norwegian side kept if from being much of a game.

All is not bleak though, there were some good signs. The top line of Patrick Kane, Paul Statsny and Zach Parise scored a goal. Later in the game it looked like coach Ron Wilson took Kane off that line and moved Jamie Langenbrunner up.


Other bright spots were the US second line of Joe Pavelski, Ryan Malone and Phil Kessel. The line clicked right away and played very well for the second straight game. Also, veteran forward Chris Drury had a goal and an overall strong game, in spot duty with Rangers teammate Ryan Callahan and big David Backes

Wilson has said he wants to get the defense more involved in the rush but unless US forwards make a stronger commitment to keeping the third man high to cover for that, it will get ugly. Look for a guy like Drury to get more ice time given his strong two way skills.

Bottom line, the US has the maximum 6 points after two game and that’s what counts. They are however going to have to up their game, especially on defense. The Americans made a number of mistakes that would have cost them against a stronger squad like Canada.

As for the Canadians, a funny thing happened on the way to Sunday’s big game…they had to go a shoot out to defeat Switzerland (a team the US handled with reasonable ease). It was pretty clear the Swiss found their legs after a day off (they wilted under US pressure from the 2nd period on after hanging with them through the 1st) and pushed the host country to the brink. Mass suicide north of the 49th parallel was avoided when Sidney Crosby scored on Swiss goalie Jonas Hiller (who as the saying goes, stood on his all night long) and Canadian net minder Martin Brodeur blanked the Swiss shooters.

tmi3rd takes a look at the game and what it means for the US and the tournament at large...

A lot to take away from this. I unfortunately got to this game a bit late, but first of all, Canada has some things they’ve got to work out. They tried to play a very physical game against Switzerland only to be matched hit for hit by the Swiss.

Starting from the net out- Martin Brodeur was overshadowed heavily by Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller in net for the Swiss… 44 saves on 46 shots, and one got past him in the shootout. Brodeur saved 21 of 23, and I frankly couldn’t tell you if Luongo would have been any better.

On defense- you pretty much have to hand it to the Swiss. The top Canadian defensive pairing of Shea Weber (Nashville) and Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim) finished with an even plus-minus (if you’re on the ice for an even-strength goal for you, it’s a plus, and a goal against, it’s a minus; there are different rules when shorthanded) and an assist for Weber. The Swiss come out even on the plus-minus, with defensemen Patrick von Gunten picking up a goal and Patrick Furrer an assist.

Up front, the story for the Canadians continues to be the San Jose Sharks line of Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley… Marleau and Heatley each had a goal and an assist. The Crosby line with Jarome Iginla (Calgary) and Rick Nash (Columbus) was physical but Iginla disappeared… Crosby and Nash had 10 shots on net. Head Coach Mike Babcock (Detroit) began to tinker with lines late trying to spring some offense, but none was coming.

The Swiss top line of Ivo Ruthemann, Martin Pluss, and Thierry Paterlini each had an assist and Ivo Ruthemann had the remaining goal. Nobody could solve Brodeur in the shootout, and Sidney Crosby is one of the best shooters in the game this year.

So what does it mean?

First of all, the result is not as shocking as it might seem at first glance. Switzerland beat Canada 2-0 in Turin and Canada always seems to run across hot Swiss goaltenders. Last time, it was Martin Gerber (then with Ottawa); this time, it was Jonas Hiller.

Switzerland plays a system much like Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils in the 90s… suffocating defense and very physical. They’re not that big, and some of their top players are in the AHL (minor leagues) or still in junior hockey. They stick to their system, and in the third period, they only sent in one forechecker and left four men back. When setting up in the neutral zone defensively, they simply set up the classic trap (the forwards funnel the puck carrier to the boards and squash him at the blue line), and Canada would then play dump-and-chase against the well-prepared Swiss defense.

One of the things that worked for the US versus Switzerland was its impressive overall team speed- Canada is not as fast by comparison. Switzerland matched up well physically against the larger but slower Canadians, and a good defensive game is what made tonight’s game what it was.

Had the Canadians lost, it would have required a regulation win for them on Sunday to win the group. Instead, this evening shows the standings as US- 6 points; Canada- 5 points; Switzerland- 1 point; Norway, 0 points (3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for a shootout win, 1 point for a shootout loss, etc.). Any win for Canada wins the group; any win for the US wins the group. This is due to the fact that Canada obliterated Norway the way they did (8-0). Goal differential dictates standings if tied in points.

The other ramification of the Canada win is that it keeps the press off their backs. The Canadian press and public are utterly unforgiving of anything less than perfection from their boys, in a way that makes the New York press pale in comparison.

So what did we learn?

Canada is capable of being outworked, and theUS showed today that they can gain strength going into the third period. Their third period today was a successful chemistry experiment (and long overdue) for Ron Wilson, and set up some good roles for the third and fourth lines to play. The US will have to play pretty much perfect defense to hang with Canada, and Ryan Miller will have to steal the game much as Jonas Hiller did this evening.

While Drew is rather bullish on the US, we pointedly saw this evening why I am not as floored by the Canadians as many are. Canada has chemistry issues that still need to be worked out, and play a slower game than people realize. Their most lethal line is their second line (Heatley, Marleau, Toews), although the first line may have better success against the Rafalski-Suter defensive pairing because of size (Rafalski is under 6’ tall). The US is still not sharp, but it’s truly anyone’s game going into Sunday.

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posted by DrewM. at 09:38 AM

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