Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tuukka Rask Finnishes Off Russia

Apart from Pavel Datsyuk, and Evgeni Malkin kind of, Russian hockey players typically fail to do the little things. Alex Ovechkin, for instance. He's a great scorer, he's strong on the puck, yet he doesn't do the small things that you see star players on other teams do. And that's a theme in Russian hockey. It's also the reason why they lost 3-1 to Finland.

Russia also struggles to build on plays as a team. This is an extension of the lack-of-little-things issue. The Russians don't string together small plays and turn them into big opportunities.

What Russia lacks as a team, Finland has in abundance. They attack as a team, they defend as a team, they line up in the neutral zone as a team. Everyone's on the same page.

This game was a series of Russian mistakes. Their first mistake was to continue with their strange goalie rotation and keep Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky on the bench. Semyon Varlamov got the start and allowed 2 soft goals. He was eventually pulled. Bobrovsky looked good in his two games before this. Why bench him in the most important game against a tough opponent?

Ilya Kovalchuk gave Russia a 1-0 lead with a power play goal. His celebration was so exuberant, it was almost too much. He jumped up as if he had scored an overtime game winner. I know emotions were riding high, but it was the first period. Russia played this entire tournament unable to control their emotions.

Finland scored their first goal after Russia needlessly iced the puck in an attempt to make a big play. Juhamatti Aaltonen weaved through Russians who stood around like cones. Then Varlamov failed to make a routine save.

A bad bounce on chipped ice resulted in a Teemu Selanne breakaway goal. So that means the Russians were betrayed by their own flimsy post against Team USA and now by their imperfect ice surface. Russia, you're supposed to have an advantage at home. Your own building shouldn't be sabotaging you.

Penalty killing requires players who do little things and who work as a team. Since those are two things Russia struggles with, it's not surprising that they allowed a power play goal. The penalty itself was unforced and unnecessary.

Tuukka Rask played a great game. He stopped 37 of 38 shots. The one goal he did allow was slightly soft, but he more than made up for it by making two or three incredible stops. That's usually the story with Rask. He will let in the occasional bad goal. His big saves usually outnumber those soft goals.

Russia is out of their own Olympics. That pleases me greatly.

Finland plays Sweden in the semifinals Friday morning at 6:30am (Eastern) on NBC Sports. So we have a European semifinal and a North American semifinal.

Photo Credit:
Alexander Nemenov /AFP/Getty Images

Olympic Hockey: Swedes Speed Past Slovenia

The Swedish play a methodical, confident style of hockey. They don't panic, they don't rush, they don't force plays that aren't there. They possess the puck, make their opponent skate around, then they use their high skill level and speed to make things happen. That's what they did to Slovenia, winning 5-0 to advance to the semifinals.

Even though the Swedes were an overwhelming favorite against Slovenia, this was a 0-0 game for almost the entire first period. It was a 1-0 game until early in the 3rd. The Swedes didn't score much for 40 minutes, but they were dictating the entire 60 minutes of this game. Slovenia had a handful of chances, but Henrik Lundqvist stopped them all. Lundqvist is another reason the Swedes can play with such patience and composure.

Alex Steen scored a power play goal in the 1st to put Sweden up 1-0. Then in the 3rd the Swedes broke the game open as the Slovenians looked exhausted. Loui Eriksson of the Boston Bruins set up Daniel Sedin to make it 2-0. Then Eriksson scored himself. Carl Hagelin scored the last two goals to make it 5-0. Erik Karlsson had an assist on Sweden's first goal and their last goal.

Henrik Lundqvist stopped 19 shots and recorded his second shutout of the Olympics. He's allowed 5 goals in 4 games and of the goalies on the four teams still standing, he's played the best at Sochi.

The Swedes will play Finland Friday morning at 6:30 (Eastern) on NBC Sports. This is a rematch of the 2006 gold medal game in Torino. Sweden won that game 3-2, and I think you'll see a similar result Friday.

Photo Credit:
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Team USA Wrecks the Czechs, Advances to Olympic Semifinals

This was such an excellent, complete win. Just about everybody who took the ice for Team USA made a significant contribution. The coaching staff also came up with a good gameplan to neutralize the Czech Republic's strengths.

Five different USA players scored goals: James van Riemsdyk, Dustin Brown, David Backes, Zach Parise, and Phil Kessel. Ryan Suter had 3 assists, Ryan Kesler had 2. The US scored 4 of their goals in the dirty area of the ice close to the net. The 5th goal was on a breakaway that utilized the vast width of the European ice sheet.

The US won essentially all of the physical battles. This was spearheaded by guys like Ryan Callahan and David Backes. Brooks Orpik also did some hitting, and some of those hits were legal.

Defensively USA didn't allow the best Czech players the time and space to make plays. Jaromir Jagr only got one shot on goal, as did David Krejci. In the first two periods the Czechs only got 13 shots on Jonathan Quick. And one of those was actually a botched Ryan McDonagh clearance attempt that ricocheted off of Ryan Suter's skate and into the US net.

The only Czechs who were consistent threats were Ales Hemsky and Martin Hanzal (who's so hot right now).

Jonathan Quick didn't have a hard day of work in the office, but he did his job, and didn't make his teammates work harder than necessary. No soft goals.

It's impossible not to be excited by this team. They have a good mix of players who are adept at playing different kinds of hockey. They have a great goalie, strong defense, they block shots, they make hits, they're fast. There's no apparent weakness to exploit, no chinks in the armor.

That being said, their next game is their biggest test. They'll be playing Canada Friday at noon (Eastern) on NBC Sports in a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game. The winner advances to this year's gold medal game, the loser will play for bronze.

Both semifinal games are rematches of the last two gold medal games. Sweden plays Finland Friday morning at 6:30 in a rematch of 2006.

I can't wait. The US women's team will also be playing Canada for gold Thursday afternoon at noon on NBC.

Photo Credit:
Getty Images

USA 4, Czech Republic 1 After Two Periods

Team USA didn't take their foot off the gas in the 2nd period. They stepped up their physical game, which not only shut down the Czech's offense before it got started (only 6 shots on goal for them), it also gave the US momentum that eventually resulted in a goal.

For the first 9 minutes of the period, US players took advantage of every opportunity to hit the Czechs. Ryan Callahan was playing especially physically, as this tweet described very well...

The US got a power play shortly after Callahan's rampage, and you just got the feeling after all those physical wins, they'd find a way to score. And that's what happened. Zach Parise scored a goal that was both finesse and toughness. The finesse was the coordination and hands required to score, the toughness was that he scored from close range, in one of the so-called "dirty areas" of the ice.

All 4 US goals have been scored in those tight areas near the net, and the US has dominated that part of the ice in both periods so far.

So Team USA is 20 minutes away from qualifying for the semifinals and playing the winner of Latvia/Canada (which is tied 1-1 as I'm writing this).

However, you can't run out the clock in hockey. There's no such thing as a prevent defense in this game. The US needs to continue to do what they did in the first two periods: Make the Czechs work for everything. Make them pay a price for every pass. Be aggressive but be smart. Don't give them any power play chances (like Brooks Orpik did with his late hit on Jaromir Jagr. Good God I hate Orpik).

Be patient. The opportunities to hit and the opportunities to score will come.

USA Up 3-1 After 1st Period

The Czechs are not showing many signs of fatigue, despite playing back-to-back games. Perhaps they'll tire by the 3rd period, particularly older players like Jaromir Jagr.

Speaking of Jagr, he was the focus of Team USA's matchups. The Americans wanted Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh on the ice as the same time as him, along with the David Backes line. This matchup paid off 14:38 into the period when Backes checked Jagr and gained possession of the puck just past the Czech blue-line. A few passes later, drawing the attention of the Czech defenders to one side of the ice, and Backes found Dustin Brown on the opposite wing. Brown scored to give the US a 2-1 lead.

And with only 8 seconds left in the period, this line scored again. Ryan Suter's shot was deflected and went wide. David Backes collected the rebound off the lively boards and jammed the puck through goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

Most of the first period was played evenly between the two teams. James van Riemsdyk scored from the goal-line to put the US up 1-0. Then Alex Hemsky was credited with a goal after a puck deflected off Suter's skate and past a sprawling Jonathan Quick. The attacking play of Hemsky, David Krejci, and Milan Michalek forced the own goal.

Up 3-1, the US couldn't be in a better position. They're up 2 goals, they found a favorable matchup, the Czechs never beat Quick, and now the Czechs have to play from behind the day after playing a close game against Slovakia.

However, the US can't ease up off the gas and play a conservative game like the Finns do when they get a lead. That's not the US's style. The Americans need to continue to attack, keep the Czechs skating after them, and keep winning battles along the boards.