Friday, February 21, 2014

Your Definition Of Great Differs From Mine

Well, have the real hockey fans who want to be entertained by seeing the best take on the best gotten sick of the hyperbole yet? I have no idea what these CBC announcers are watching but how they can call the Sochi 2014 Olympic men's hockey tournament "great" is beyond me.

If you enjoy "shot, save, whistle" or "shot, save, no rebound chances" then this is the hockey for you. If you enjoy offensive ineptitude, this hockey is right up your alley. Forget the 55 shots Team Canada fired at the Latvia net, this was an ECHL goalie stoning a team of supposedly the best in the world because those "best in the world" really just had no answer. Hey, if the Ron Tugnutt of Latvia can shut down an offence that thinks each shot on goal = a true scoring chance then so be it.

 Before Gudlevskis, there was Tugnutt

Honestly, after you've experienced two fairly decent Olympic tournaments (Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake 2002) and two above average ones (Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010) overall, I was expecting a bit more than this low-scoring non-action style even with the number of injured players (and even national team general managers) who could not make the trip to Sochi. Maybe that's the problem here. Without 100-percent healthy lineups for all teams, the goals go to die on the big ice in 21st century hockey.

We could blame the big ice but both Nagano and Torino were played on ice of the exact same dimensions as well, and there were some terrific games then. Can you imagine a 7-4 game in a semi-final? That was the score that Pavel Bure's five goals helped to create in Russia's win over Finland in 1998.

Hey, Ovie, you're no Pavel

That's not all. Fully 75 percent of the games in the first round and the playoff rounds that followed featured at least five goals in regulation or more.

In group play we had Sweden come back for a 2-1 deficit after one period to beat the USA 4-2. Russia and Finland first had a 4-3 group game before their all-time classic semi-final. Even the Czech Republic's 4-1 win over the US in the QF had plenty of action as Dominik Hasek stood on his head turning aside 38 shots.

In 2006 at Torino there was a fair number of good games. Slovakia upset Russia 5-3 in both teams' openers. Latvia and the USA tied 3-3 thanks to Arturs Irbe stopping 39 shots. The Swiss upset the Czech Rep. 3-2 behind David Aebischer's 40 saves.

It wasn't all great goaltending as one of the most fun games of the tournament was Slovakia's 6-3 win over Latvia. The Finns beat the Czechs 4-2 in a game that saw 71 shots on goal all tolled.

Then the first of what is now THE classic matchup of international hockey (sorry, Canada) Russia beat the US 5-4. Finland, though, caught the US in the next game 4-3.

One of the semi-finals (to repeat, a SEMI-FINAL) had Sweden take apart the Czechs 7-3.

So, it's not the "big ice" that is ruining play at the Sochi Olympics. It's more the overcoaching and teams being far too tentative overall. It's gigantic goalie pads still. It's the mentality of "don't lose" rather than go out and win it. It's the nonsense that a team thrown together two or three days before a tournament is the way to produce quality hockey. It's playing three games each day on the same ice with only one on fresh ice in the smaller arena. It's playing in Stanley Cup Final playoff temperatures that affect the ice especially at Black Sea level.

Yet all these things were pretty much the same in Nagano and Torino so why here and why now? These are questions for others to answer as, frankly, I don't care why. I just want goals or at least some breakaways or two-on-ones and some sustained action around the nets.

Look, I have always loved watching Canada in these tournaments. I get into the selection process. I debate the line combinations. Doing an Olympic hockey pool--cool. Yet, I'm tired of playing fantasy GM once the hockey starts. I NEED actual good hockey. Olympic hockey should not be more boring than watching the LA Kings or Vancouver Canucks struggle to score in another meaningless regular season NHL game. It just shouldn't.

Sacrilegiously, I'd sooner see a 4-3 loss to Sweden and a glorious silver medal in the upcoming Final than a 1-0 or 2-1 Canada borefest gold medal win like today vs. the USA. This is anti-hockey. It's soccer on ice. Try as the Canadians did, it's too frustrating to watch offensive ineptitude.

Explain to me, how someone who is supposedly the equivalent of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in the game today can have zero goals in the tournament. Slow starts are fine but a "slow" tournament overall?

Please don't tell me it was all Jonathan Quick and the US D. It wasn't just that.

I can enjoy the odd 1-0 or 2-1 game, especially if there are tons of shots and actual scoring chances. It's just now with five 1-0 and three 2-1 games so far, enough already!

How many times did we see Canadian forwards come down and overpass?
How many times did we see them come off the boards and shoot straight into the crest on the goalie's jersey?
How many times did they try to jam or rugby scrum it into the net?
Not enough traffic in front of the goalie?
Too much traffic in front that you can't get the puck through?
Which is it?
Do I even care anymore?

Wasn't part of the selection process done with picking forwards who had proven themselves in the big ice in the IIHF World Hockey Championships? So, Rick Nash, where are the goals? Where are the amazing drives to the net? Where's that terrific shot of yours?

Remember when Rick Nash could do this?

Give me Guy Lafleur flying down the wing blasting away. Hey, give me Sidney Crosby slaloming through the D for the Pittsburgh Penguins over him wearing a badly designed Team Canada jersey and flubbing easy chances from two inches in front of the net. 

It's beyond bad hockey period. Stop telling me this tournament has been great. It plainly hasn't and unless this is addressed in a constructive way, what is the point of having a best vs. best tournament then? If this is the best hockey can do on the international stage, sorry, I remember 1972 . . . and 1976 . . . and 1987 . . . and 1996. Heck, I was at Nagano in 1998 when it was fun to be in the building not bored out of my skull as I am on my own couch.

Honestly, when these so-called "journalists" look back on Sochi 2014, they'll realize next to maybe the 2004 World Cup, this has been the most forgettable display of actual best vs. best hockey since it began in 1976.

Just don't bother waking me up at 4 a.m. on Sunday to watch GI Joe Head Hughson not do the actual play-by-play and just go on and on about the "great" hockey he's witnessing. I'll be up at 9 a.m. to fast-forward to the goals, if any . . . then I'm popping in my 1987 Canada Cup Final Game 2 (yes, even better than Game 3) DVD to remind myself what truly great international hockey is.

 Now, THIS is great hockey!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Juggling Is For Clowns

All this gnashing of teeth over Sidney Crosby's inability to put a bucketload of points on the board or find linemates he has "chemistry" with needs to be dialed back. This tournament is incredibly low scoring period all across the board. Alexander Ovechkin has all of two points. Pavel Datsyuk just two, Marian Hossa has one, Zach Parise none.  It happens and, there's plenty of tournament left for some of these guys so . . . let's just all take a deep breath.

Of the five Olympic men's hockey tournaments played since the NHL came aboard, this has arguably been the lowest scoring (and dullest). Fully 44 percent of the group stage games have ended up in games of four goals or less total (not counting shootout goals). That's so much beyond the '98 and '02 Olympics where just two of the 12 games played in the group stage were THAT low scoring. Even the last "big ice" tournament of Torino 2006 saw an a total of 30 percent (nine out of 30) of the group stage games with four goals or less.

The bigger problem is Mike Babcock and the coaching staff. Coming in they said they had a plan. They're going with Carey Price it looks like as their #1 goalie and, despite a Roberto Luongo shutout vs. Austria, Team Canada is sticking to the plan as Price started the crucial game vs. Finland. 

They seem to have set the defensive pairs as we thought to some degree--the two St. Louis guys (Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester), Duncan Keith with Shea Weber and Drew Doughty with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. It was thought Keith and Doughty would be paired up but seems like the switch is working for Doughty given he's channeling Paul Coffey in the goal charts.

So, what is up with the forwards?

If, unlike in World/Canada Cups you do not have a proper training camp and exhibition games to try things out, and the Team Canada brass chose players who play on the same line for their NHL club teams (i.e., Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) then keep those guys together and just rotate in and out the other wingers that fill out those three pairings. Only then can we determine whether chemistry has been achieved.

But benching Kunitz for not making Crosby light it up made no sense. Ditto sitting out Sharp. Then rotating Sharp and Kunitz with John Tavares and Rick Nash in the last game was just plain odd and didn't work at all.

It's overthinking the whole process. Honestly, I think Babcock, just like in 2010 loves to tinker, and also because Canada has not been scoring at a rate like USA or Finland has he's feeling the pressure to pull some offence out of a magic hat. Yet Team USA are basically riding one hot line of Phil Kessel, Joe Pavelski and James vam Riemsdyk. Notice anything there, Canada? Yes, Kessel and JVR play on the same line with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Pull some line combos out of this hat, Babs

Hey, Canada has won all three of their group games anyway thanks to a D that has figured out that larger ice means more room to attack, but have some faith in the "plan" you had coming in. Play the Pens, Hawks and Ducks pairs together and don't keep splitting the former two up all the time when one period or one shift doesn't go right.

Also, if Jeff Carter gets a hat trick with less than nine minutes of ice time, and Kessel gets a hat trick in less than 13 minutes of ice time, it's not the ice time that is the problem for all these "stars."

Honestly, since 1976, Canada has played in 11 best vs. best tournaments and suddenly ice time is an issue? These guys are all pros. Many of them have played on winning international teams. They know how to adapt to less ice time. Give them some credit.

Have a look at 2010's top four scoring forwards ice time through the tournament:
Jonathan Toews 13:26, 13:13, 14:26, 11:48, 15:50, 16:30, 17:19
Sidney Crosby     15:30, 19:50, 17:23, 14:43, 17:34, 16:42, 16:52
Jarome Iginla        9:48, DNP, 14:16, 13:06, 15:41, 15:46, 15:04
Ryan Getzlaf       12:49, 15:45, 14:05, 13:48, 10:41, 13:00, 17:52

Now the last time on the clocks there was the Final which lasted 67:40 total playing time so hence the bit of a boost. Anyway, it's not like any of these stars cracked the 20-minute mark in any game during the tournament.

In fact, Getzlaf's biggest game points-wise was the QF vs. Russia where he got 1G 2A in just 10:41 of action.

So could we please all just get off this "they're not getting enough ice time like they do in the NHL" jag. It didn't hurt them in Vancouver, and it's not the difference maker in Sochi.

If you want the forwards to start scoring, then stop the constant line juggling. In fact, in Vancouver after Babs stopped diddling around and settled on Rick Nash-Toews-Mike Richards for the last three games and kept them together, only then did Canada start to roll.

The problem is tinkering works only when it works. Babcock may tinker just as much as in 2010 and it may not work but wasn't the selection process of picking linemates on their own teams done to speed this chemistry issue up?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Did Oshie Awake the Nightmare Bear?

In case you're not a St. Louis Blues fan and wonder just who this T.J. Oshie is and why his official Sochi 2014 profile has him as "Furnace Face," it's all explained here.

Or just enjoy the Nightmare Bear before we get to the fact that T.J. may have awoken the Russian Bear itself.

I'm so stoned, comrade


Russia Tries 2010 Canada Map To Gold?

We all remember 2010 when Team Canada muddled through its group and finished with an average 2W-1L record. Thanks to one of those wins coming in the shootout, Canada slipped to the 6th seed and had to play that extra game in the qualifying playoff round. In the end it didn't matter and may have actually helped Canada's offence get it in gear with an 8-2 shellacking of perennial borefest Germany leading to the 7-3 gorillas on the loose attack vs. Russia in the quarter-finals.

This may be the route Russia will end up taking. All things considered, USA should beat Slovenia and Russia should beat Slovakia in the final group games for each team. The only way Russia avoids having to play that extra game like Canada did in 2010, is to run up the score vs. Slovakia and hope the Canada-Finland game goes to overtime/shootout. Russia has at least a five-goal deficit to make up on Canada should Canada lose in OT/SO vs. Teemu Suomi.

Realistically, the top four seeds are going to be Sweden, USA, Finland and Canada with the loser of that Finland-Canada game being the 4th seed.

The main issue is avoiding Russia in the QF because, like Canada in 2010, that is going to be one angry and highly motivated team by then. Russia does, at this stage, look like it'll be the 5th seed and therefore gets to play the 12th seed (which based on their lack of points and horrendous goal difference could be Russia having to play Slovakia for the second game in a row).

Let's assume Russia wins and all the seeds #5-8 win their qualifiers. That means Russia will play that 4th seed meaning...uh, Canada you might want to win that final group game vs. Finland. Of course, that could mean a semi-final paring with Russia but win or lose you're in the medal hunt anyway.

Of course, none of this will happen when Slovenia upsets the US and Slovakia wins in a shootout vs. Russia tomorrow. 

The Defence Does Not Rest

All this hullabaloo about the big ice and how it would adversely affect play for North Americans, hid the fact plenty of ice means plenty of room for the D to manoeuvre around in the offensive end for ALL teams.

Currently, there are four defencemen in the Top 10 of the Olympic scoring leaders with Sweden's Erik Karlsson and Finland's Olli Maatta 1st and 2nd atop the list. Maatta's teammate Sami Vantanen and Canada's Drew Doughty are the other two.

Of the 75 goals scored in the tournament so far, 20 percent have been scored by defencemen. It sounds like a lot, and it is. In the 2013-14 NHL season so far 737 goals have been scored by defencemen. There have been 4,835 goals scored meaning D-men make up about 15 percent of the goal scoring load (Give or take as some of these GF overall may be the phantom extra goal awarded for a win in a shootout. Not to act dumb, but does a 3-2 shootout win in a shootout = 3 GF or the real 2 GF in NHL stat minds?).

Anyway, without the D chipping in, and not just chipping it out, you're going nowhere in this tournament period.

Why No Love For the Swiss or Finns?

Is it just me or are "experts" overlooking two teams that are incredibly dangerous? Finland I'll give everyone a pass pre-tournament on as they had two key injuries to captain Mikko Koivu and Valteri Filppula (and now have Alexandre Barkov down for the count) even with their incredible great medal track record. The thing that has to jump out is their ability to score now in bunches. That's what is incredibly scary about the Finns now. They have always been good but, if they can now score, they have the D and netminding to win it all.


Hey, this guy IS pretty good

 Then the Swiss have been showing that Torino 2006 was no fluke with a decent showing at Vancouver 2010 (a shootout loss to Canada and getting to the quarter-finals). Sure, they are the LA Kings of international hockey in that they can barely score a goal let alone two, but Jonas Hiller is playing at even a better same level than he has been playing at with the Anaheim Ducks. The Swiss are simply scary good and it's not like they don't try to score, they just don't have the talent level to do that yet or pepper stronger opponents with enough shots to make up the difference.

Enough With Crosby's Troubles

Is it just me but what is Sidney Crosby's problem? I mean, Jeff Carter can't seem to click with him and gets moved to play with Patrick Marleau and Jonathan Toews and scores a hat trick (OK, his first goal was assisted by Marleau and Crosby, but you drift my get).

Did we have this discussion about Wayne Gretzky ever at the international level?

At the '81 Canada Cup he, Gilbert Perreault and Guy Lafleur were terrific  and even after Perreault broke his leg, the other two continued to rack up the points until that Soviet Union mugging of the entire team in the Final.

In '84 #99 was paired for the most part with Michel Goulet and Rick Middleton and they were pretty great together. In '87 of course Mario and often a rotating set of wingers (or centers converted to wing) the last being Dale Hawerchuk on that famous winning goal.

I'll stop there as I could go on and on until the Nagano 98. Point being the Wayner has always been THAT good that anyone who plays on his line will get set up to put the puck in the net.

All I can say, it's a short tournament, Sid, and there's no Jarome Iginla there to help you out this time. You're the veteran now.

Oshie Shoots Up Sochi

Sure, TJ Oshie's four-for-six in the shootout was wild and crazy but does it mean anything beyond a pretty good and close hockey game decided by the skills competition? Most likely, it doesn't.

In 2010, there were just two shootout games and both involving Switzerland. As forementioned they lost to Canada, but they did beat Belarus in the other one.

It's a nice story with all this 1980 Miracle On Ice nostalgia wrapped around the Not Soviet Union vs. USA vibe. In the end it amounts to little, if Team K-Swiss Logo USA do not at least medal.

After all in 2010 Ryan Miller stole the group game 5-3 for Team USA after Canada poured 45 shots at him. In the end, come the Gold Medal game the Americans came up a sliver (silver?) short.

Get back to me when TJ is needed in an elimination game. Then let's see if he's really Jonathan Toews-like.

Toews...Toews...and more Toews!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Team Canada Starts Slow--What's New?

A slow start by Team Canada in a best vs. best tournament. No, we've never seen that before.

I guess with 2010 getting off to that roaring 8-0 start vs. Norway, this 2014 3-1 win is quite the letdown. Sure, it is as some of these forwards Team Canada has (calling Ryan Getzlaf and Jeff Carter) seem pretty big and slow on the big ice. Then again--Crosby? Sidney? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Anyway, before we all forget Team Canada has won tournaments with less than stellar group play.

At the 1984 Canada Cup, Team Canada finished in 4th (the last playoff slot) in the six-team group with a 2W-2L-1T record. Thanks to John Tonelli, Paul Coffey and Mike Bossy they turned almost horrendous embarrassment into victory in an unreal 3-2 overtime semi-final win vs. the USSR to save Canada's back bacon. Then Canada defeated the much easier Sweden two games to zip in the Final.

Paul Coffey could play D

Although both the 1987 and 1991 teams won the Canada Cup and did top group play, their opening games vs. Czechosloavkia and Finland in both years ended in less than spectacular ties.

And in the Olympics in 2002 and 2010 there were some early hiccups. In '02 Canada got torpedoed by Sweden in the opener 5-2 and ended up with a 1W-1L-1T record in group play. At the last Olympics in '10, Canada ended up having to play in the qualifying playoff round thanks to not finishing off the Swiss in regulation time. With the Olympics having a more logical 3-2-1 point system for victories in regulation, overtime/shootout and shootout losses, the shootout win was the single point difference between a bye to the quarter-finals and having to play that extra game. In the end, both years saw Team Canada take gold so fret not yet.

Anyway, a win is a win is hopefully another win with about 10 goals scored against Austria tomorrow.

Of more importance is how even more dreadful GI Joe Head Hughson is at play-by-play. Is everyone at CBC oblivious to how Bob Cole-like he's become? Mark Lee may not be the next coming of Danny Gallivan but at least he does his job--you know, Hughie, the actual

The beauty of the new channels with the dedicated feeds is not only is Glen Healey never heard (the mics only pick up the broadcast booth not the between-the-benches mic) but the intermissions are filled with just the cameras roaming the arena focusing in on fans. This is the BEST thing ever! Forget the same old talking head experts in the intermissions. NHL get in on this. It's mesmerizing checking out who's wearing what and what goofy stuff fans, mascots, Olympians and assorted PK Subbans are up to sitting in the arena.

No Nightmares Here With This Russian Bear

All I can say give me another day of that many goals and quick-paced games without all the play stoppages or commercials and I'm golden. Plus who knew Finland could lose possibly their two best scorers in Mikko Koivu and Valteri Filppula and still put up an 8 on the scoreboard. The last time they did that in a meaningful tournament (sorry, IIHF your B level World Championships) was back at the '98 Olympics when they smoked Kazakhstan 8-2. Given the Finns ended up playing the game of that tournament, the 7-4 loss to Russia in the semi-finals (a game in which Pavel Bure scored five beat that, Ovie!), here's hoping the Finns keep the goals coming. If you have a spare 90 minutes, check out below the best game ever in Olympic play since the NHL pros came aboard: