Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Look At Your 2010 Winter Olympic Ice Hockey Semi-Finalists

Well, yesterday's Men's Hockey Quarter Finals were riveting. Things got underway with the United States Men going scoreless through two periods with Switzerland, only to have the dual-citizenshipped Zach Parise light the lamp twice in the third, sending the Swiss packing. Ryan Miller fought off Team Switzerland in another brilliant effort, and posted the first American shutout in eight years (Mike Richter last accomplished the feat in a 5-0 win over Germany in Salt Lake, 2002.)

Up next was what was supposed to be the game of the night: Russia-Canada. Only, as Mike Milbury put it, the Russians brought their Euro-Trash game, and got sent home courtesy of a 7-3 ass beating.

Late in the evening the Fins and the Czechs battled through two scoreless periods as well, and Team Finland, like Team USA earlier, scored once in the third, then sealed it with an empty-netter. Still later, Team Sweden met Team Slovakia for perhaps the most entertaining game of the day, Team Slovakia escaping with a 4-3 win.

So where does that leave us? We'll have Team USA and Team Finland square off on Friday at 2 p.m. Central, and Team Canada and Team Slovakia will go at it around 8:30. The gold-medal game will then be the early tilt on Sunday, followed by the game for the bronze that evening.

How they stack up:

Team Canada

After their loss the the United States at the end of the preliminaries on Sunday, the Canadians had two choices: Get over it and play the brand of hockey that they know, or tuck their moose tails between their legs and let the Russians push them around, ultimately sending them home. They chose the former, and insisted, via their play, that they are still the favorite to take home the gold. If they did, by the way, they'd be the first team to do so on home Olympic soil since the Americans did it at Lake Placid 30 years ago.

Before we hand Canada the gold, however, there are two things to consider: 1) They did light the Russians on fire, but that was by no stretch your mother's Team Russia. The Russians, although significantly hyped headed into the Vancouver games, are relatively old both in age and style. Beyond Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin -- who, by the way, were completely shut down in this game -- this squad is not that deep. 2) The Canadian talent pool is a loaded weapon. You either use it as it was intended and execute it properly, or you might hurt yourself. The Canadians have the ability to put on a circus show out there that would make the Ringling Bros., the Harlem Globetrotters, and Siegfried & Roy all jealous. They really do. I wouldn't surprise me to see them jump through flaming (Editor's Note: I'm looking at you, Siegfried.) hoop while connecting on a one-timer pass dished up by a one-legged Canadian forward. Use it correctly and you could coast to gold, but tinker too much with the lines, or simply make poor choices in linemate selection, and you could find yourself in a tricky Carmelo/Iverson sort of pickle, where Mike Babcock is scratching his head wondering how it was possible that this didn't work.

Team Finland

It was a mere four years ago that the Fins sent Team USA packing in the Quarter Finals by a one-goal margin. Team Finland advanced to the gold-medal game, and lost to the Swedes by a goal. This is, more or less, the same Finnish team from Torino. The United States team, however, is almost totally revamped. The thing about the Fins is this: Despite their age, they're still quick, crafty, and they can make plays happen off the cycle. If the Americans want to exact revenge, they must not be fooled by Finland's ability to do exactly this. The other factor is this: Mikka Kiprusoff. For my money, Kiprusoff is the best goalie in Vancouver, and his 1.33 goals-against average should scare the pants off of the American forwards. He has saved nearly 95 percent of the shots he has faced, and this is no Olympic sort of whim. He's that good. Team Finland isn't going to score a ton of goals, but they could squeak a puck or two past Ryan Miller on Friday, which means the Americans had better find a way to beat Kiprusoff by at least one more.

Team Slovakia

This is the dark horse left in the competition. I'd bet nobody saw this club sneaking into the Semis, and I'll guarantee you the Swedish didn't. Having knocked off Team Sweden last night, this makes four consecutive winter olympics in which the defending gold-medalists have been eliminated. (Editor's Note: The Russians knocked out the Canadians (who won gold in '02) in 2006, and knocked out the Czechs in '02 (who won gold in '98 in Nagano, Japan), and Team Finland knocked out the Swedes (who won gold in '94 in Lillehammer, Norway) in 1998.) I read last week, a joke about Team Czech Republic playing Team Slovakia in the preliminaries, and how this was funny because they used to be the same country. What's funny is that the Czechs beat the Slovaks in that game (3-1), but the argument could be made the the Slovaks are the better team. I say that because the Czechs got pushed around by the Russians, barely beat Latvia earlier this week, then lost to the Fins yesterday. The Slovaks, however, gave up fewer goals in the preliminaries while scoring nearly as many as the Czechs did.

Now, the Slovaks barely made it past Norway, who was humiliated by the U.S. and Canada in the preliminaries, but then they show up and knock off a clearly better team in Sweden. The Slovaks, like the Fins, are a bit old, but they have some playmakers, and that's what could get overlooked by the Canadians on Friday. The Slovaks flat out make plays. The old St. Louis Blue "Slovak Pack" of Lubos Bartecko, Michal Handzus, and Pavol Demitra are in the mix, as are Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, and the towering Zdeno Chara. Aside from Gaborik, they're not super-quick, they're not entirely talented, but they have some kind of unbridled chemistry that enables them to click. It's quite an eccentric mix of talent, but Jaroslav Halak in net could be their Achilles'. He's their best option, and he's put up good numbers thus far and kept this team alive, but facing a point-scoring powerhouse like the Canadians could be too big a challenge for him.

Team USA

Going young was the best thing that could've happened to this club. That's a fact, and now it's time for the young stars on this team to step up and prove it. This club has come some way in terms of gelling since they first took the ice against Switzerland in the preliminaries last Tuesday, but they've been hanging on to the play of their captains and their goaltender for too long. Ryan Miller has been the story of men's ice hockey thus far in Vancouver. He's played lights out. The other reason that the team is undefeated headed into Friday is because of the play of their captains. Of the 16 goals they've scored through four games, their captains have scored nine. The play of Parise yesterday was enormous in that it a) won them the game, but more importantly b) demonstrated the results his hard-fought, gritty effort had suggested he was capable of up until that point. It's time for Patrick Kane, Paul Stastny, and Ryan Callahan to step up and make some plays or this team's great ride will come to a halt. What's more is that the play of Team USA's defense has been good, but they have not been great. They'll need to take it to that next level if they're going to skate with the likes of Finland and Canada, not to mention the sneaky Slovaks.

Oh, and Ryan Miller, amazing as he has been, will have to be flawless. It's a tall order, and this kid is capable of doing it, but talk is talk. Getting out there and playing smart hockey to, and above, the level of your ability is the only thing that puts this team atop the podium Sunday night.

Like Jeremy Roenick (J.R.) and many hockey greats have said, "It's about playing to win, not playing not to lose." In there, my friends, is the key to American gold.