Yesterday, despite some close games and scares by "almost Cinderella teams" especially Latvia, there were no upsets in the Qualifying Game of the Medal Round in Men's Ice Hockey. So that sets up some really, really good games today. Frankly the truth is everyone of these is a too close to call game but we'll try and do it anyway. Before that I have to point out my prognostication on the Belarus - Switzerland game was wrong and once again despite a shaky start Swiss Goalie Jonas Hiller led his team to victory. Canada basically just all out over-powered Germany as everyone thought they would, the only score was the Germans didn't start getting blown out until after a full period of hockey was played - good on them. The other three games were all decided by one goal - two went to extra innings but in the end the higher seeded team won.
Today's line-up is of course:
1) USA vs. 8) Switzerland
2) Sweden vs. 7) Slovakia
3) Russia vs. 6) Canada
4) Finland vs. 5) Czech Republic.
Before talking about the surprise quarter-final game between Russia and Canada - surprise only because everyone thought this would either be a semi-final match up or probably the Gold Medal game - let's look at the other games any one of which is a toss-up in lots of ways.
4) Finland vs. 5) Czech Republic
First did the Finns catch a break? Will Jaromir Jagr play today or not? He left the qualifying game against Latvia in the second period with an upper body injury and didn't return. Does it matter? Not if the Czechs play the same way against the Finns as they did against the 12th seeded Latvians. However, consider yesterday the Czechs scare/wake-up call. Pretty much every one of the teams in the tournament has now had one - a wake up call that is. Also the OT winning goal by David Kreji and the solid 60 minute+ play by Tomas Fleischmann could well be signs of things to come. Finland is a great team with great goal tending so it's entirely possible we'll see a total goaltenders duel between Tomas Vokoun and Mikka Kiprusoff but I'm thinking Jagr returns, plays sparingly but inspires the Czechs and what we see is more like the Finns 3-0 loss to the Henrik Lundqvist and the Swedes then the Finns would like. As Washington Capitals fans know Tomas Fleischmann tends to be somewhat streaky and he certainly looked like he was on the uptick against Latvia. Further, I think the Czechs were caught looking a little past Latvia to Finland and this game; they won't be looking past the Finns today. One more qualifier/caveat - both these teams are great and evenly matched. It should be a close, great game - I'm just thinking yesterday';s injury in the second period to Jagr means the Czechs all now know for sure this is his last game. I feel they will use that for inspiration and that's the intangible I think pushes this game to the Czech Republic.
2) Sweden vs. 7) Slovakia
The Slovaks only beat Norway by one goal 4-3 in the qualifier - it wasn't their best game. Slovakia's goalie Jaroslav Halak only stopped 16 of the 19 shots he faced (SV% 0.842) while Norwegian goaltender Pal Grotnes stopped 36 of 40 (SV % 0.900) for his side. For the Slovaks to have a chance against the well rested, high -octane Swedes Halak must do much better. To be sure, Slovakia has a fair amount of firepower of their own as they proved with their 2-1 preliminary round victory over Russia. However, their victory over Russia means the Slovaks won't be sneaking up on anyone this time. Sweden has been and continues to be playing great hockey. Throughout the tournament they've played good, solid team hockey and I expect them to continue to do so. They are anchored by an experienced core of Gold Medal winners and world champions, and they have young stars as well. So while I expect Slovakia to raise their game from where they were yesterday against Norway, I think in the end, the Swedes will prevail, in fact I wouldn't/won't be surprised if the Gold Medal game is Sweden against any of the other possible opponents at this point. The Swedes have been relatively overlooked compared to Canada, Russia, and USA and I think they a) don't mind that and b) are using it for their motivation to repeat their Gold from 2006.
1) USA vs. 8) Switzerland
This is a game ALL about intangibles in my mind. On paper the USA is the much stronger team but today on the ice it's about drive, emotion and where the key players on each team's heads are. Switzerland has been a giant killer in prior Olympics and they will strive to be so today. Further this is the second meeting this Olympics between these two teams, they were in the same Group in the prelims and the Swiss played the USA hard though USA won that game 3 - 1. This is the game Jona Hiller could steal for the Swiss to get them into the Medal games; to be sure he and the others on his team will be using that for motivation and they will all likely play even higher than their solid talent level usually takes them. For Team USA it's all about forgetting - forgetting they have already beaten Canada once this tournament, forgetting they beat the Swiss once already to and realizing now it's "win or die" - "come big or go home." Forget the hype USA, realize you need to play one shift at a time - all out, every game you have to leave it all out on the ice or else you could well have regrets that last a lifetime. Team USA has indeed proven, they deserve to be thought of as one of the elite teams in this Olympiad, but to reach their goal they have to only think about THIS next 60 minutes of Hockey in Vancouver. It's not about the first miracle on ice in 1960; it's certainly not about "THE Miracle On Ice" in 1980 it's all about kicking Swiss butt or having "your" Olympics shortened by them. The Swiss have proven they can play with Team USA in their 3-1 loss. Hopefully, I am American after all, that means Team USA uses that as motivation to come out focused on the task at hand and playing hard. If they don't and fall behind, the crowd is very likely to get behind Switzerland and provide Hiller and his mates motivation in the hopes they extract some "revenge" for Team USA's earlier defeat of Team Canada. I don't see that happening though, I think Team USA is on as much a mission as Sweden and they too are playing pretty solid team hockey - no? For that reason I'm thinking, this game ends with Team USA advancing.
3) Russia vs. 6) Canada
Okay first off I'm totally biased and am rooting for Russia - four solid reasons: Alexander Ovechkin; Alexander Semin; Semyon Varlamov, and Mike Green. That's right, Mike Green. This is the game I'm hoping that shows Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman he got it wrong on the Mike Green snub. The quote I've seen from Yzerman on the selection of defensemen for Team Canada a couple of weeks ago was:
"I just think the defence we put together can generate offense almost to the same level as Mike [Green], yet be stronger in other areas. We just thought the seven we chose are a better fit for us."
So here's what I think. [begin rant] I think Steve Yzerman's selections on defense lack the speed to keep up with the Russians for a full sixty minutes; I think Team USA exploited that weakness and I think Russia will too. Additionally, I think the Russians have the same ability as Team Canada to play a punishing, physical game for a full sixty minutes with the Canadians and this will be an awesome game to watch. In the end I'm hoping we see a couple of times during the game, particularly the second half of the game, where the Russians get odd man breakaways on the Canadians. Situations where Team Canada wishes they had the skating ability of the top ranked/top scoring defenseman in the NHL on their team. Finally, I think Yzerman's view is clouded by the way the game used to be and the way lots of hockey folks will think about it until the Capitals win a Stanley Cup playing the game using Bruce Boudreau's system - a system where the defensemen have to be as much or more a part of the offense as they are of the defense, the forwards have to be as much a part of the defense as the offense. [end rant]
Now further on this game, I think the Canadians are totally motivated after their loss to the Americans, but I think that game showed some weaknesses in Team Canada. Sure they were weaknesses that appeared remedied by the line changes Mike Babcock put in place against Germany, however Russia is a lot different team then Germany. The Russians are on a mission, they've mentally prepared for this game for months, the Canadians did too. My thinking, the Russians don't really care this is a Quarterfinal rather than Gold Medal game; the Canadians probably do. The Russians had a day of rest; the Canadians had to come out face their nation, win a game against the Germans, and then apologize to their nation for even having to play the game in the first place. Finally how "fixed" are things with Team Canada in any case; the 11th seed German Team they played in the qualifier scored 3 goals in their three preliminary games that's and average of 1 goal a game. Yesterday, they doubled that production and scored twice against a "fixed" Team Canada - think about that.
Look, I admit I really have no idea which of these two powerhouse, all-star teams will win. Each team is filled with guys, any one of which could swing the game entirely to their team at any given moment of the game. Has Team Canada been shaken out of their over confidence? Who knows, the pressure on them to win this is phenomenal. Have the Russians simplified things and fixed their under-performing power play? Who knows, there is certainly no logical reason for it's paltry production to this point. Is this a story about Luongo vs. Nabakov? If so will "BobbyLou" win it as so many others think? I doubt it's even the real tipping point of the game but again who knows. Here's what I do know, I'm a Washington Capitals fan and after watching so many games that Alexander Ovechkin has played in since he came into the NHL, I would never bet against him, especially in a BIG game. The same goes for a guy named Federov and finally I'm a real Alexander "Sasha" Semin fan and this could be the game he chooses to show the world why he regards Sidney Crosby as a good hockey player who is mortal. It could also be the game where a guy named Malkin chooses to ensure he's the Pittsburgh Penguin star with BOTH a Stanley Cup AND an Olympic Gold Medal. So me I'm predicting the Russians advance to the Semifinals, do I have any logical reason for it, no not really, it's what I'm hoping of though and I believe in karma so I have to be sending what I think are positive thoughts out to Vancouver.
Here's the final thought as we get ready to watch today's great set of games unfold. The combined NHL/KHL payrolls of Team Canada and Russia total over $300 million USD, to get to that number with a $56M salary cap you need 5+ NHL teams. So if you watch tonight's game and shake your head a few times at either some awesome move or play or the reverse why an NHL star on "your" team isn't seeming to be able to do some things you often see him do in a regular season NHL game, you might think back to that fact. For every one of the guys on each team, this is all about "go big or go home." It's also why it's a shame this is a quarterfinal instead of a semi or Gold Medal match-up...