Saturday, February 20, 2010

Canada looking like Swiss Cheese in the early going

Wow, that was fun, wasn’t it? Sidney Crosby scoring in the shootout to beat those pesky Swiss in the Olympic preliminary round...that was an exciting. Never mind that the result is actually bad for Canada, because it means they’re a point behind the U.S. for top spot in Group A, as the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) awards only two points for a overtime win instead of three for a regulation win. As far as international hockey is concerned, this is still an upset and a big one. Not as big as the result in Torino where Switzerland actually won, but this is still a minor hockey nation taking points from a hockey power- that’s not something that should be taken lightly; and we could have had another Swiss victory if the Swiss didn’t hand Canada those early power plays.

Yet after the game, none of the talk was about how well the Swiss team had genuinely played. Swiss goaltender Jonas Hiller literally stood on his head in stopping 43 shots (and stopping three more shots in the shootout, only allowing the one goal), outshining Canadian counterpart Martin Brodeur who made 21 saves, yet all the analysts on CTV focused on after the game was Crosby and some poppycock about how “great players want to be in pressure situations”; contending that the whole game could be summed up on that one shot. There was a discussion by the analyst panel about the implications of the lost point, which Darren Pang thought would be big especially when it came to seeding for the medal round, but that was as close as it got to any negative talk regarding Canada’s performance. Later in the night, when TSN’s Darren Dutchyshen recapped the Swiss-Canada game during the Russia-Slovakia contest, Dutchyshen started with the highlight of Crosby’s winning goal, then went to the subsequent attempt, where he simply stated that “the Swiss shooter was stopped by Brodeur”. That shooter does in fact have a name, and it’s Martin Plüss. Thrown in were shots of Canadian fans partying in the streets, celebrating as if Canada had won the gold medal, shots that are completely inappropriate for a game that might as well have been a loss. The Canadian players- including Crosby- did give the Swiss some credit, but apart from that, recognition for Switzerland’s performance was disappointingly lacking.

Perhaps this kind of reaction should be expected- after all, this *is* a Canadian broadcast, and the discussion should focus primarily on the Canadians- but it should not have been this one-sided as the game clearly was not. Despite a clear talent divide between the Swiss and the Canadians (it was amusing seeing the Swiss trying to run bigger Canadian players and getting knocked down themselves), the Swiss executed a far better game plan than Canada did, using their speed to their advantage to neutralize a far-too-methodical approach by Canada and played with an intensity level Canada couldn’t match. Through the course of the game the teams did play fairly evenly (even though there was a shot disparity, actual scoring chances were pretty level, especially after the first period), and it helped that the Swiss had a wall in net by the name of Jonas Hiller. Other players shined on the night as well, like the Canadian-born (and former Calgary Flame) Hnat Domenichelli, Plüss, Ivo Rutheman (the first Swiss goal scorer) and Ducks farmhand Luca Sbisa (probably the best player other than Hiller on the night), but overall, this was a team effort and a team game. They weren’t afraid of their superiors and even though the results page shows they lost, taking a point from Canada is enough of a victory.

Switzerland’s play also exposed what are developing into big holes in the Canadian game; and they’re both related. The first hole- noted by Nick Kypreos- was a lack of aggression by the Canadian team. He noted that despite Canada’s notable size advantage, the team isn’t hitting people like they should, unlike the Americans’ David Backes, whom Kypreos called the “best player of the tournament” because he is hitting everything in sight (it’s a little early to throw around that platitude, even if Kypreos is right about Backes’ influence). It is a fair assessment but it’s only half of the problem- the other half is that Canada’s size should allow them to take on defenders in the attacking zone, yet you rarely saw the Canadians going to the net, choosing to instead set up shop along the perimeter and hope they get traffic in front of the net. Canada never seemed willing to change the tempo of their game, and their inability to do so allowed Switzerland to take control of it. This is where the curious omission of Mike Green comes into play- as much as Alexander Ovechkin gets the credit for leading the Washington Capitals’ offence, it’s really Green who orchestrates each attack from the backend; and that skill is sorely lacking in the Canadian game. They may have gotten away with it against Switzerland and Norway (where the Canadian game was also along the perimeter), but how do they expect to get away with it against Brian Rafalski or Nicklas Lidstrom?

The second major hole in the Canadian game is the lack of team speed. The Swiss didn’t have the hands to convert on the many chances their speed alone generated because, if they did, this could have been another Swiss regulation-time win. Still, watching the Swiss run around the Canadians was stunning, because Switzerland appeared to make the entire Canadian team a bunch of pylons. This advantage in speed meant that Switzerland could apply pressure on the Canadians everywhere on the ice, and- aside from the opening few minutes- sustained offence by Canada was hard to come by; and it’s all owed to the pressure Switzerland exerted. It also allowed Switzerland to chip away and eventually create the chances that tied up the score. Again, just like the last point- Canada could get away with it against Switzerland and Norway (who were also faster than Canada, albeit not as much as the Swiss), but against more skilled opposition such as Russia or Sweden, the chances they’ll give up from a lack of speed is going to cost them because those opponents will bury more of their chances.

The last major hole- and one that can’t really be addressed now, because it’s a roster issue- is the lack of a “pure” defensive anchor at forward. Remember 2002, when Canada won Olympic gold? Yes that team was packed with stars like Joe Sakic, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Jarome Iginla, Brodeur, etc. but the team also had quality shutdown forwards to lean on, like Michael Peca and Joe Nieuwendyk. Where are those players on the Canadian roster? Mike Richards, Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews were supposed to fill that role at these games but neither have made much of an impact, and the lack of a “true” checking line became a huge problem against the Swiss. There’s simply no excuse as to why Canada couldn’t hold on to a 2-0 lead against Switzerland, and certainly all the neutral zone turnovers the Canadians coughed up could have been minimized if they could lean on a player who’d be willing to chip the puck forward instead of always “thinking offence” as what is happening too much with the Canadian forwards. Obvious omissions such as Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier (who both know a thing or two about shutting down opposition in pressure situations- that’s how Tampa Bay won the 2004 Stanley Cup) are what first comes to mind, but other players like Patrick Sharp, Jordan Staal, Mike Fisher or even Antoine Vermette (a faceoff specialist) could also provide immediate stability to the Canadian checking unit. There still is time for Richards and his crew to round into form and provide the checking role Canada needs here, but they need to do it sooner rather than later, because now the opponents are just going to get tougher.

It’s not yet time to push the panic button, because we still haven’t finished the group stages yet, but Canada in its early going isn’t looking as good as it should be, and that should be cause for alarm. They should have coasted against Norway and Switzerland, but instead they wind up dropping points to the Swiss, which is still essentially a loss. Credit should be given to Switzerland and Hiller for playing the game of their lives, because a share of the spoils is what they deserved, but that will be small solace for Canadian fans who should demand much better than what their team is giving them; and time is running out for the Canadians to start clicking. The Americans- who must now have their tails up- await on Sunday, and as the tournament progresses, Canada could expect to face Sweden or Russia or even both. Many predicted that this was Canada’s gold medal to lose, but unless things change in a hurry, Team Canada just might lose it.



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