Thursday, February 25, 2010

Onward Brave Americans

Canada’s destruction of Russia- seriously, what was that all about?- was a frightening display of raw hockey power. I guess we won’t be seeing those “veterans” of the KHL anytime soon again. Canada dispensed with the macho nonsense, like winning battles in the corner, which merely serves to distract this awesome display of hockey skill. Instead they really ramped up the tempo, got the defensemen moving up, and simply throttled the Russian blueliners. Add in some shaky goaltending and an emotional performance in front of the home folks- and the result was big trouble followed by a stinking mess for the Soviets. Oddly then, the more compelling, interesting game was the top seed United States 2-0 win over Switzerland.

The Swiss have turned in back-to-back overachieving Olympic performances. They gave both Canada and the top seeded United States fits in the trio of games they’ve collectively played. So the top seeded USA need not apologize for the gritty win.

Because the Swiss have had a docket heavy on the top seeded USA and Canada the last two Games, I’ve seen them a lot- and as the link above shows I took a shine to them right away. The best approach to win this tournament is to be Canada- a complete collection of Hall of Fame hockey players leavened by elite all-stars. But in 2006, the Swiss figured out how to be competitive in this competition.

To wit, for all the talk about goalies and high-scoring wingers, you can play a competitive game in this tournament if you can roll out four quality defensemen. The key for these secondary teams (including the top seeded United States) is to be competent, poised in you own end: get it out, don’t turn it over, don’t give up odd man rushes, don’t leave guys uncovered fifteen feet from the goal, don’t turn it over. That is it. Simple- do that and you can keep Canada to a manageable two, three goals.

And while it helps to have world class players to score and tend goal, you just need a more basic competence to get it out, don’t turn it over, don’t give up odd man rushes, don’t leave guys uncovered fifteen feet from the goal, don’t turn it over. Those “skills” seem to be widely present- not necessarily world class. It doesn’t take Chris Chelios to run an orderly end; it merely takes a resolute Mark Streit.

Outside of Canada and Russia, the bottom half of the top six and the more competitive also-rans (Switzerland, Slovakia) are not making this tournament about star power and scoring, but rather playing mistake free in your end and keeping teams to a pair of goals or so. Again, it is something you can do with four or so good, not elite, committed defensemen. Almost all the potential upsets and actual upsets were low scoring disciplined affairs: Slovaks taking out the Swedes, the top seed USA and Swiss keeping Canada’s total down, Germans playing close to the Swedes, etc.

That is why the top seeded USA is advancing in this tournament- because they are darned orderly in their own end. Canada had a zillion shots- but not many rebounds or tic-tac-toe skill plays to unmarked guys. The game with Switzerland evolved into a game where two teams who are able to keep their ends orderly, free of cheap goals and good goalies. The Swiss have an NHL goalie, some good NHL defensemen, plus a veteran group of Euro-professionals who can mark their assignments and not commit bad turnovers. The top seeded US probably deserved a better result- outshooting the Swiss badly. But the top seeded Americans had a pair of goals disallowed (justifiably) that would have provided some breathing room with a bit more luck. In the end, the United States (the top seed) was saved by the their clicking, easily executed power play- just toss it back to the point and blast away. No chemistry required.

Before the tournament started, the consensus was that Zach Parise was probably the only American who makes Canada’s team. But watching Canada strafe the Russian defense with endless odd man rushes, rebound goals and emerging endlessly from the corners and walking up to the net- the antithesis of the “orderly end” I described above- the top seeded USA defenders are growing on me. As I wrote earlier in the week, Canada perhaps missed on a couple of defense choices. I can now see Parise, Miller and a defenseman or two making Canada’s roster.

Canada’s troubles with both top seeded USA and Switzerland, followed by Canada’s emphatic drubbing of Russia, moves both the top seeded USA and their two victories over the Swiss up a notch. Another game would be a real test of the theory: the top seeded Americans are way outclassed talent-wise, but you can cut a paper three goal deficit to something admittedly still south of even by holding the goalie edge and four good, unsentimental defensemen. Brian Rafalski holds top forwards and lines scoreless many nights. Now, there is no reason to look past the Finns (hot goalie). But maybe Rafalski and his top seeded peers could keep Canada to a manageable number to allow for a second sensational win.