Sunday, February 28, 2010

Into The Crystal Ball- The Gold Medal Game

Canada vs. the United States, in the gold medal game for Olympic men’s hockey. Is there a better way to end the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games?

(Well, if Canada won the hockey gold...but we’ll get to that)

Team Canada enters the gold medal contest with a chance to make Winter Olympic history. The three gold medals on Saturday gives Canada the record for the most gold medals by a host nation with 13 (three more than the U.S. managed in Salt Lake City), which also ties Canada for the most gold medals at a single Winter Olympiad with the Norwegian team from 2002 and the Soviet Union from 1972. So not only can Canada claim what many regarded as the most prestigious medal at the Olympic games with a win on Sunday, Canada can claim the Winter Olympiad record outright. The whole country was going to watch the game anyway, but now they have an added reason to watch.

On the American side, there’s no medal record at stake with a victory, but there’s still plenty of reason for them to win this game. Before the tournament began, only the most strident of supporters would have believed this young, inexperienced American team would even have a sniff at the semi-finals, let alone the gold medal game. Yet this is not a team that will be simply “happy to be here”, as this scrappy bunch turned doubters into believers, winning the chemistry test and now has every expectation to win. They’re arguably playing the best hockey in the tournament and while on paper they don’t match up to the Canadian all-stars, the U.S. has every ability to make this game a contest.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

U.S.

Preliminary Round, Group A

Defeated Switzerland 3-1

Defeated Norway 6-1

Defeated Canada 5-3

Ranked #1 after Preliminary Round, receives bye to Quarterfinals

Quarterfinals: Defeated Switzerland 2-0

Semifinals: Defeated Finland 6-1

CANADA

Preliminary Round Group A

Defeated Norway 8-0

Defeated Switzerland 3-2 (SO)

Lost to U.S. 5-3

Ranked #6 after Preliminary Round, must play in Qualification Playoffs

Qualifier: Defeated Germany 8-2

Quarterfinals: Defeated Russia 7-3

Semfinals: Defeated Slovakia 3-2

FIRST SHOTS: The path to this game was different for both teams. Canada’s road was rocky, with a group stage performance that included a shock result against Switzerland (despite the shootout win, Canada actually dropped a point) and a poor performance against the U.S., before rebounding against Germany and Russia. The Americans, however, have literally flown through this tournament, as they have yet to face a game with a one-goal margin of victory. Arguably the closest game of the tournament was not the game against Canada but their game against Switzerland, where the Swiss flirted with victory for most of the game. However, any fears that the U.S. had fallen off the rails were put to bed with their first period blitz against the Finns, where the Americans were up 6-0 after just fifteen minutes of play. So just from a casual glance, the Americans are playing the better brand of hockey while the Canadians haven’t been consistent, but everyone knows momentum is fleeting in sports and you have to ask yourself- did the Americans peak against Finland?

LOWDOWN ON THE U.S.: This was a team that had to win the chemistry test to have a chance to compete and it’s safe to say they not only passed the test, they aced it. Everyone on the team knows their roles and plays it well- the Americans’ best players (Patrick Kane, Zack Parise and Phil Kessel) have been their best players, their secondary players lived to their roles (Paul Stastny, Ryan Malone) their checkers (David Backes, Ryan Kesler, Joe Pavelski) have given the team the spark when they needed it, the team has a clear defensive anchor (Brian Rafalski) with a clear supporting cast (the Johnsons, Erik and Jack), the team has clear leadership (Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner), the power play is clicking and their goaltending (provided by Ryan Miller) has been phenomenal. Really, there’s not much you can criticize the U.S. for at these Olympics because their play has been close to perfect. The only cause for concern would be how the U.S. would respond if they went down early in the gold medal game, because it’s easy to play when everything’s going right, but how will they respond when things start to go wrong?

THE LOWDOWN ON CANADA: Before the tournament this was called hockey’s version of the “Dream Team” because they featured so many All-Stars on their roster and, on paper, they looked like the strongest team at the tournament. However, once the game started on a different kind of sheet- the ice sheet- the Canadian team played anything but the best team in the tournament. Outside of the game against Russia, the Canadians have yet to play a truly flawless game. Against Norway their play was along the perimeter far too much, the score only getting so high because Norway was clearly overmatched. Against Switzerland and the U.S. Canada’s lack of team speed caught up to them; and against Slovakia the Canadians suffered too many defensive breakdowns. The talent is enormous on the Canadian roster, but so too are the questions. Outside of the “San Jose Sharks” line of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla, the Canadian team has had no offensive production, especially from Sidney Crosby who was supposed to be the team’s best player but is far from it. There’s no clear checking unit, as Patrice Bergeron, Mike Richards and Brendan Morrow have failed to do their jobs, and despite a blueline with Scott Niedermayer, Dan Boyle and Chris Pronger, there’s no defensive anchor. Drew Doughty- yes Drew Doughty- has outplayed them all and looks like the anchor we’d thought he’d become, but he’s got a case of the yips too much. The only place where Canada appears set is in goal with Roberto Luongo who has provided stability after Martin Brodeur failed to perform in the group stage. Yet, despite all the problems- underlined by atrocious team chemistry- Canada is here, and all they’ve got to do is get a unit that works just for one game. If they can do that, they can win this game.

HOW THE U.S. WINS: Score first. That’s objective No. 1. The crowd at General Motors Place (I don’t care what the money-drunk Olympics want me to call it) will louder than any crowd anyone has ever seen, and you can bet they’ll be even louder should the Canadians get up 1-0 or 2-0 early; at which point the Americans will be under siege. Miller, thus, has to be sharp, because the Canadians are likely going to come out strong and he’ll have to answer the challenge so that the U.S. can at least remain in striking distance as the game progresses. The Americans also cannot afford to take frustrated penalties if they start sloppy, because then any deficit they incur could get away from them quickly. The U.S. played “the perfect road game” against Canada in the group stage with a supreme defensive effort and opportunistic counter-punching, and they’ll need to reproduce that blueprint if they’ll have a chance here. They will need to adjust for Luongo, however, since they defeated a Canadian team with Brodeur in net, and Luongo is not going to give Rafalski the freebie that Brodeur gave him in the group stage game. Simply put, the American machine has to work to perfection- which it has so far in the tournament- for the U.S. to exact revenge for 2002. Any lapse and the Canadians will run away with the game like they did in Salt Lake City.

HOW CANADA WINS: Chemistry. That’s the No. 1 priority. The Canadians proved they can make one-game adjustments by dismantling Russia, and they’ll need to make that adjustment to have any chance on Sunday. The Canadian team is more talented than the American team, so their challenge is finding a unit that makes it work. They’ll also need to evoke the effort they displayed against Russia, coming out with intensity and bang out the Americans’ will to play. The crowd will definitely be on their side, so they have to use it. Canada may be slower than the U.S., but they were slower than the Russians and they beat the Russians to every loose puck; and if they can win that battle they’ll wear down the “American machine”. Luongo will also have to be on top of his game, especially if Miller frustrates Canadian shooters, so that Canada remains in striking distance for the whole game. The Canadians also cannot get frustrated if they are down early or even late- the Americans showed against Finland that they can smell blood, and the Americans have nothing to lose in this game, so Canada risks getting buried if they play scared. The power play is also going to have to work, especially if the Americans take frustrated penalties early in the game. Above all else, though, is that Canada needs to have a unit that works- they’ve failed the chemistry test at these Games, but the fortunate part is that all they need to do is pass it for one game, which is easier than if they had to do it over a whole season. The talent is there- they just need to use it.

...AND THE WINNER IS: This is too close to call. On paper, this should be a Canadian landslide, but games aren’t played on paper. The Americans have played far better than their Canadian opposition, and all the particulars- except Brodeur in net- return from the decisive American group stage victory. The Americans aced the chemistry test while the Canadians have flunked theirs, so if one side is more likely to play well, it’s the U.S. However, Canada showed they can make one-game adjustments and they’re more than capable of doing it again for this game; and if they can match the effort and energy that they showed against Russia, this is going to be rout because the U.S. doesn’t have the same talent level Canada does. You also have to figure that this will be the loudest crowd in the history of the game, and that crowd will be behind Canada which is going to figure in the final result. Logic would favour the Americans, because they’re playing much better hockey than the Canadians are, but I can’t pick against Canada where the confluence of events- the gold medal game against its biggest international rival on Canadian soil- is just too strong for an American victory. The U.S. is going to make it close- very close- but there will be no revenge for Salt Lake City.

Canada 4, U.S. 3 (SO)


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