Saturday, February 27, 2010
Sunday’s matchup will conclude what is one of the most entertaining hockey tournaments ever played. There were a ton of overtime games, a few shoot-outs, a couple of upsets, and the fastest hockey I have ever seen. Even the bottom teams played hard and when they played each other they provided fantastic games that kept me enthralled. Who knew Norway-Switzerland could be so exciting?
So, to prepare for the big game I think it’s appropriate to break it down, DX style (more like Bill Simmons style, but whatever).
Canada has the deepest group of forwards in the entire tournament. They boast eight of the NHL’s top-30 scorers, while the U.S. only has four. Their fourth line even has Rick Nash playing on it. Their strength is definitely at centre where they can afford to play Joe Thornton on the third line (behind Crosby and Getzlaf). Each Canadian forward is capable of scoring goals, which allows Canada to role four dangerous lines. While the US does have some top-tier talent (Parise, Kane), they have much less firepower than the Canadians and must work much harder to generate their offense. In fact, the leading American scorer is defenceman Brian Rafalski (4 goals and 4 assists).
Canada’s defence is so deep that they left Mike Green off the roster. Green surely would be a top-pairing defenceman on any other team in the tournament. Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith are playing the most minutes and both look like Norris candidates. Shea Weber and his cannon-shot add a dangerous element from the point and if the Canadians are brave enough to screen Miller this could spell trouble for the Americans. The only weak spot has been Pronger and Niedermayer who have played inconsistently, but have looked better the past few games. The Americans blue-line is much less heralded than the Canadians, but has been rock solid. Brian Rafalski looks 10 years younger and is having a fantastic tournament. So much so that he's actually leading the tournament in points. It’s possible that Ryan Miller is making the U.S. defence look much better than it really is. I’m not convinced that Jack Johnson and his -12 comprise an actual shut-down defencemen.
The U.S. have the best goalie in the league. Ryan Miller has let in only five goals all tournament. Roberto Luongo has let in five goals the past two games. Miller could be the 2010 version of 1998 Dominik Hasek. That’s how well this guy is playing. The more saves he makes he seems to get into a zone where he knows he can't be beat. It's really frightening. Luongo looked solid against Russia, but was inconsistent against Slovakia. The first goal Visnovsky scored was horrible and allowed Slovakia back into a crucial game (understatement). Although, he made up for this gaff by completely robbing the Slovakians within the dying seconds to preserve the Canadian win. I’m sure the American fans are much more comfortable with their goaltending situation than Canadians are.
Both power-plays have struggled, although their percentage actually looks pretty good. But I guess everyone thinks you should score more when you put five superstars on the ice. Canada has scored 7 power-play goals in 24 opportunities over 6 games (29.17%), while the U.S. has scored 6 goals in 21 opportunities over 5 games (28.57%). Penalty killing isn’t much different. Canada has only allowed 2 power-play goals against (88.24% efficiency), while the U.S. have allowed 3 goals (76.92% efficiency). Canada averages about 6 penalties a game, while the U.S. averages 5.
I don’t think coaching will be a big factor in this game, but it will certainly play a role. Ron Wilson is showing that he is still capable of coaching a team with actual hockey players on it, but he was run out of San Jose for not being able to lead a stacked Sharks team to a Stanley Cup (yes, Canada’s Thornton and Marleau are big reasons for this). His counterpart, Mike Babcock, is the best coach in the league. He (well, J.S. Giguere) took a surprising Mighty Ducks team to the seventh game of the 2003 Stanley Cup, his Red Wings won the 2008 Stanley Cup, and he led them back there last Spring. One criticism is that he left Marty Brodeur in for one goal too long against the States.
The US look like a team that have played together for an entire year. The lines are working fantastically. There hasn’t been a point in the tournament where they have looked out of sync. Canada’s chemistry was more of a work-in-progress. It’s steadily improved as the tournament has progressed and they seemingly now have their lines set. The coaching staff has finally settled on line mates for Sidney Crosby (Iginla and Staal) and Getzlaf and Perry (Morrow). This has solidified the lines and provided instant chemistry. This is close, but the US have been playing like a team all tournament, while Canada just gelled a few games ago.
How they got here
The US has yet to lose in the tournament and received a bye to the finals after defeating Canada last Sunday. They only beat the Swiss 2-0 in their quarter-final matchup, but this was largely based on the stellar performance of Jonas Hiller, rather than any fault of the Americans. They followed up this performance by absolutely killing Finland. The game was over after 15 minutes. The Fins packed it in and the Americans coasted the rest of the way to victory. Whether this is a good thing or not is unknown. Canada faced a Slovakian team that competed the entire 60 minutes and were inches away from tying the game within the final 10 seconds. It was a nail biter and not exactly the way Canada wanted to end a pretty complete game, but it’s possible the stiffer competition will help the Canadians against the Americans. Although, facing Belarus in the semi-finals in 2002 didn’t seem to harm Canada.
The US has a decided edge in this department. First, they’ve already beaten the Canadians. Plus, every minute that passes without a Canadian goal the entire building will be on edge. This is a very, very nervous crowd. They are loud and raucous, but everyone is so scared of the possibility that Canada won’t win gold. If this is how the fans feel then I can’t imagine how the Canadian players feel. They have the weight of an entire nation on their shoulders. The Olympics have turned out pretty successfully for Canada, but men’s hockey gold will determine whether or not they really are. The pressure is enormous. America has no pressure. Despite winning every game of the tournament they are still the underdog and have nothing to lose.
Nine American players have played in the conference finals, while Canada has 16. America has four Stanley Cup winners (Drury, Rafalski, Langenbrunner, and Orpik), while Canada has nine (Brodeur, Fleury, Staal, Crosby, Getzlaf, Perry, Pronger, Boyle, and Niedermayer). I guess Brodeur and Fleury don’t really count since they aren’t playing, but they certainly add to a culture of winning within the dressing room.
This is going to be a great game. This is the most excited I've been for a hockey game in a long, long time.