Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Olympic Hockey: Latvia Upsets Switzerland

Latvia and Slovenia among the final 8 teams at the Olympics. How great is that? In 2010 Latvia finished 12th in the Olympics. Slovenia didn't even qualify. Latvia advanced the the quarterfinals by beating Switzerland 3-1.

Who is Daniel Alfredsson? A great NHL player who is an icon in Ottawa and currently plays for the Red Wings. He's won an Olympic gold medal and will probably be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Who is Lauris Darzins? Let me look him up because before today I had no idea...

(Doing legitimate research)

He's a 29 year old winger from Riga, Latvia. He currently plays in the KHL. He played as a kid in a Finnish league. He was drafted in the 9th round of the 2003 NHL Draft by Nashville. He played juniors in Canada's Western Hockey League. He was never signed by Nashville. He returned to Europe to briefly play in the Finnish SM-Liiga, then the Czech Extraliga. He played in Belarus, then Dinamo Riga (Latvian KHL team), and he's still in the KHL playing for a team in Russia.

So he's not Daniel Alfredsson, who has over 1,000 NHL points. Why the comparison then?

Before this game, Alfredsson was the only player in these Olympics to score against Switzerland. In this game, Latvia's Darzins scored twice.

I could go on a tangent about Darzins because Nashville expressed interest in signing him a few years ago, but like many other European players, he'd rather be an established player in the KHL near home than struggle to even get a shot at making the NHL thousands of miles away. This is a trend in European hockey the last few years, and it's hurting NHL roster depth. The star Europeans play in the NHL, the depth guys would rather make more money in the KHL then slog through the AHL ranks.

Back to the game...

Switzerland, similar to other Germanic teams like Austria and Germany, plays well when the games goes according to plan. Switzerland plays to a script. They play very well in 0-0, 1-0 games. However they struggle to improvise when the game deviates from that script. They don't know how to react when, for instance, they fall behind 2-0.

That's what happened against Latvia. Oskars Bartulis beat Jonas Hiller thanks to a screen to put Latvia up 1-0. Lauris Darzins made it 2-0 with some exquisite patience by both himself and Mikelis Redlihs, who set him up. Darzins added an empty-netter.

Martin Pluss scored for Switzerland in the 2nd period, only the third goal scored by the Swiss in the tournament.

Latvia's reward is to play Canada, who collectively sighed with relief once they realized they wouldn't have to face Jonas Hiller.

It will be tough for the Latvians to beat Canada, but they should be proud of how well they've played in this tournament, with only one NHL player on their roster.

Photo Credit:
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Olympic Hockey: Czech Republic vs. Slovakia Recap (Winner to Play USA)

The 3rd period of this game was on of the most exciting in the Olympic tournament as the Slovaks almost came back from a 4 goal deficit. However the hole was too deep for Slovakia to pull themselves out of. The Czechs won 5-3 and will play The United States Wednesday at noon (Eastern) on USA Network.

The CR was up 4-0 late in the 2nd when Marian Hossa gave the Slovaks some momentum. Hossa's line would factor in all three Slovak goals, with Zdeno Chara not getting an official assist, but affecting the game just by his sheer presence.

Hossa scored again 7:21 into the 3rd, then Tomas Surovy scored 91 seconds later. Andrej Sekera and Michal Handzus each had two assists.

The remaining 11 minutes of the 3rd period were a back and forth frenzy of opportunities for both teams. Goalie Jan Laco kept the Slovaks within one goal while on the other end Ondrej Pavelec protected the Czech lead.

With 53 seconds left Andrej Meszaros committed a blatant slashing penalty to put the Slovaks a man down. The Slovaks were able to move the puck into the offensive zone to pull their goalie, but almost immediately the Czechs won possession back, and Tomas Plekanec scored the empty net goal to seal the Czech victory.

The Slovaks never played up to their ability in this tournament until the last 21 minutes of this game. Their best players - Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, Michal Handzus - are all a little on the old side. Chara and Handzus both turn 37 in March, and Hossa is 35. There are only a few guys on the Slovak roster who are in the prime of their hockey careers and also have top-level ability.

The Czechs, on the other hand, have a well balanced blend of experienced guys (Jaromir Jagr, Patrick Elias), and guys in the groove of their career (David Krejci, Tomas Plekanec), along with some talented young NHLers (Martin Hanzal).

They're going to be a tough opponent for the US. Hopefully that exciting 3rd period wore them down a little bit.

Czech Republic vs. USA Wednesday at noon (Eastern) on USA Network.

Photo Credit:
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Olympic Hockey: Norway vs. Russia Recap

One story surrounding this game has been that the Russian team isn't playing to its potential. Some have suggested that there is division on the roster due to the mixture of NHL and KHL players. Russian media outlets are questioning where the "Big Red Machine" is. But I think these stories about Russia not playing well are exaggerated, even imagined.

Russia has played very well. Under NHL rules, they would have beaten the US in that epic game Saturday morning. And they were still just one shot or one save away from winning. The US needed 8 shootout rounds to beat them, and the US is a damn good team.

Russia beat Norway 4-0 and potentially quieted those doubters, at least for one day.

The game was closer than the score suggests. It was 2-0 before Norway pulled their goalie. It was 0-0 after the first period until Alexander Radulov was credited with a goal that bounced off a Norwegian skate and into the net. Pavel Datsyuk got the assist. Datsyuk tallied three assists in the game. Radulov also scored an empty-netter in the 3rd and had an assist. Ilya Kovalchuk scored late in the 2nd. Alexei Tereshenchenko scored with 40 seconds left in the 3rd.

All 4 of Russia's goals were scored by KHLers. Datsyuk and Vladimir Tarasenko were the only NHLers with assists.

Norway played a conservative game, trying to make everything difficult for Russia. That strategy is always a double edged sword because it makes offense hard to generate. You purposely reduce the number of offensive chances you'll get, and a team that lacks talent (relative to Russia) like Norway should play for as many offensive opportunities as possible, and hope Russia makes defensive mistakes (which they tend to do), and pray that Russia doesn't finish its offensive chances.

In hindsight, it's easy for me to say that. Norway played a great game against a great team in front of a hostile crowd. Had Norway managed to score first, maybe the supposed tension and rifts on Team Russia would have expressed themselves on the ice. Maybe a sour crowd would have made those tensions worse. Russia does seem like a team that doesn't handle adversity well.

And Russia will likely face adversity when they play against Finland in the quarterfinals.

Photo Credit:
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Austria vs. Slovenia Recap

Before 2014, Slovenia had never won a game in Olympic competition. They hadn't even qualified for the Olympics. Now they've won two games and they're in the quarterfinals after beating Austria 4-0. Yet another reason to love Olympic hockey.

Austria played with no emotion, until near the end of the game when the only emotion they showed was frustration. They could have come into this game relaxed and loose. Or they could have played with an intense aggressiveness. Either would have been better than the clinical and sterile game they tried to play.

Austria featured three NHL players, including Thomas Vanek. Slovenia has only one NHL player (Anze Kopitar). There's only one pro hockey team in Slovenia, and it plays in Austria's league. There are only 7 hockey rinks in Slovenia. Norfolk County in Massachusetts has more rinks than that.

Most of the Austrian team plays in the Austrian league, while the Slovenian team is comprised of players who play in leagues across Europe. There are representatives from the French Ligue Magnus, the German DEL, the Swedish HockeyAllsvenskan (Sweden's second highest league), Austria's EBEL, the KHL, two Czech leagues, and the Slovak Extraliga.

Maybe that diversity is why the Slovenian national team is able to play above its talent level. They play with pride for their country. They're fighters. They're willing to play anywhere and everywhere just to play the game.

It might also help that 13 players come from the same town (Jesenice)

Anze Kopitar (NHL) scored Slovenia's first goal on the power play, then Jan Urbas (Germany's DEL) scored a shorthanded goal. Sabahudin Kovacevic (Russia's Supreme Hockey League, which is a step below the KHL), scored Slovenia's third goal. Jan Mursak (KHL) scored an empty-netter. Mursak also had an assist. Marcel Rodman (DEL) had two assists. Goalie Robert Kristan (Slovak Extraliga) stopped all 30 shots he faced.

Slovenia advance to play top-seeded Sweden. I don't think Slovenia will win, but they won't be eliminated without a fight.

I really do like this team. They just need to get better uniforms.

Photo Credit:
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

USA vs. Russia Demonstrates Why NHL Players Should Play in Olympics

I wanted to wake up for the 7:30am start of US vs. Russia Saturday morning. Just in case I didn't, I set my DVR to record the game. I'm glad I did because I slept through most of it. And when I woke up, Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with patriotism and the word "Oshie." There were 530,000+ tweets with the word "Oshie" in them on Saturday.

When was the last time that such a thing has ever happened for hockey? When was the last time that the entire country focused on a hockey game, the way a city focuses on a Stanley Cup game? The game was even featured on SportsCenter, on NBA All-Star weekend, and we know how rare it is for SportsCenter to feature hockey.

That's the power of Olympic hockey. You get the best players in the world, you put medals, prestige, and pride on the line, and then you play 60 minutes of great hockey. Or more.

And just a few words to Russian players like Alex Ovechkin complaining about their disallowed goal when the net got dislodged: It's your country, your Olympics, your rink, your net, your moorings. Either build stronger nets, or build stronger character and accept the result and move on with your life.

The NHL doesn't make any money off the Olympics. Not directly. The NHL teams stop playing, and NHL players risk injury only a few weeks before the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The NHL doesn't get a dime from ticket sales or TV advertising, even though everyone is watching the League's players play.

By the way, the injury risk argument is lame. The NHL plays 4,920 regular season games every 4 years, along with 60 playoff series. There are 30 Olympic hockey games every 4 years. You can't schedule 82 regular season games then argue that an athlete playing 6-7 more is an unacceptable risk.

The way the NHL should view Olympic hockey is like a really popular and convincing infomercial. It's free advertising. The NHL spends huge amounts of money trying to promote the game, particularly to kids. The Olympics do that for free. And do so with more success.

How many kids out there saw TJ Oshie on Saturday then wanted to develop shooting moves like him? How many young goalies out there saw Jonathan Quick in net and wanted to learn how to stop shots like him?

Before the Olympics only a handful of people knew who TJ Oshie was. The Olympics turned him into a star. And the NHL desperately lacks famous star player, particularly American star players.

The NHL needs to realize that hockey is a regional, niche sport. It has a cult following. Which is a polite way of saying that it doesn't have broad appeal but the relatively small number of fans it has are fanatics.

The Olympics don't convert millions of new fans, just like the World Cup doesn't create armies of new soccer fans when the US does well. However, the Olympics do recruit a number new followers to the cult. More kids will want to play, will ask their parents to take them to a game, will watch highlights online. They'll want a TJ Oshie shirt for their birthday. And guess what, NHL, you get money from that. And when more people play hockey, more people watch hockey. You make money from that too, NHL.

So instead of focusing on the short term buck, and the immediate revenue you don't make from the Olympics, think of them as free advertising/recruiting for your game/cult.

Look at it like this. If NBC Sports had said to the NHL "We're going to promote the game of hockey for hours and hours in the next few weeks. We'll use NBC, NBC Sports, CNBC, MSNBC, USA. We'll put the women's finals on NBC. We'll put USA on NBC Sports and Canada on USA. We'll show Sweden and Finland and the Czech Republic and Switzerland and Russia and Slovakia. We'll promote the game of hockey for free, we'll get countries riled up, we'll stir national pride, we'll make everyone wake up at 7:30am on a Saturday just to watch hockey, and all we want in return is 6-7 games from NHL players...

The NHL would be dumb not to take that deal.

The NHL will be dumb not to take that deal.

Photo Credit:
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press