Friday, February 21, 2014

Canada Outplays USA, Wins 1-0

When the Team USA roster was announced, there were criticisms that it didn't have enough offensive firepower. Those critics, sadly, were proven right as Canada shut out Team USA 1-0. Canada will now play for the gold against Sweden on Sunday, and the US will play Finland for bronze Saturday.

The argument defending USA's roster choices was that guys like Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane would do the scoring. The team lacked offensive depth, but had powerful offense at the top. Kessel had a good Olympics. Patrick Kane failed to score a goal. Team USA needed Kane in this game and he didn't deliver.

The US got 30 shots on goal, but only a handful truly challenged Carey Price. Most possessions were one and done. Most shots hit Price right in the maple leaf.

Give lots of credit to Canada's layered defense, a testament to assistant coach Claude Julien, whose layered defense has been a staple of the Boston Bruins' success for several years.

While Canada's layered defense remained strong, Team USA allowed a goal because of defensive mistakes. Ryan Callahan got careless and didn't cover his man (Jay Bouwmeester) on the point, and didn't cover his space in that part of the ice. An open Bouwmeester threatened to shoot, which Jonathan Quick had to respect, and an opportunistic Jamie Benn slipped into the space vacated by Callahan, and tipped Bouwmeester's shot-pass into an open net.

Phil Kessel's game was a microcosm of USA's game as a whole. He had a few chances on breakaways, using his speed. But after the initial shot there wasn't enough support to maintain pressure on Price. Kessel also had a number of giveaways and passes intercepted in the neutral zone. So did Ryan Suter. So did Kevin Shattenkirk. Too many USA possessions ended before they made it through the neutral zone.

Kessel's play in this game is exactly why I'm glad he's no longer a Bruin.

While Canada's defense reminded me of the Bruins, Team USA's power play also, unfortunately, reminded me of the Bruins. There wasn't any movement away from the puck, which put the onus of creating passing lanes on the puck carrier. So the puck carrier was forced to protect the puck AND move around enough to get his 4 teammates open. That's just not good.

The ice sheet is 100 feet wide, and Team USA only used the 10 feet along the boards when they had a power play. This was exactly what Canada wanted.

Canada won the battles behind the net, in front of the net, along the boards. It's not that the US didn't have enough talent to beat Canada. The US didn't have execution. Jonathan Quick played a great game, good enough to neutralize any talent edge Canada had. The US wasted 3 power play opportunities, didn't support the puck, didn't take care of the puck in the neutral zone.

Just a bad game. And I'm disappointed in this team. Had they played great and lost, I'd be content with a bronze. They didn't play great, most didn't play good.

Go Sweden.

USA vs. Canada Preview: Epic Fucking Hockey

One of the many things I love about Olympic hockey is that on the top teams, all these guys know each other. They've played against each other for years in the NHL, sometimes in the same division, sometimes with each other on the same teams. There's familiarity, and that breeds contempt. Then add the national rivalry and the high stakes with a chance for Olympic gold on the line, and the result is epic hockey. Not good hockey, not great hockey, epic fucking hockey.

For the US to win this game, they need goaltending. Jonathan Quick has been great during these Olympics, and they need that to continue. Quick can't let in any soft goals. And he's going to have to make at least one, but probably two or more brilliant, improvisational saves for the US to win. Goaltending is Team USA's biggest edge in this game. They need to press that advantage.

I also think Patrick Kane needs to score. In 4 games he has 4 assists and is +3, which would be good for a stretch of NHL games. However, when the US is playing Slovenia and Slovakia, and scoring 19 goals in 4 games, you'd expect more from production from a guy like Kane. We've seen how he can carry a team like he did the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup. He needs to carry some of the load for Team USA.

The US also can't take any stupid penalties. Canada will play physical, they'll try to get under Team USA's skin, they might even embellish a few hits trying to get a call. Guys like Brooks Orpik need to remember that there are rules, they will be enforced, and Canada's power play is not something you want to give bonus opportunities to.

There will be a lot of pressure on USA's defensemen. The US has a lot of young defensemen and they have to face guys like Sydney Crosby, who know how to take advantage of inexperienced defensemen. Mistakes will happen, but there's a limit. And Quick can/must cover for errors made by Team USA's blue-liners.

This game is going to be a 60 minute (or more) arm wrestling match for control. Control of the puck, control of which zone the puck is in, control of the boards, and control of the area near the nets. Team USA has easily dominated those dirty areas against their European competition but Canada will not let them do that. Team USA can win battles down there, but it won't be nearly as lopsided in USA's favor as it has been against the Europeans. Shea Weber is 6' 4" and 233 pounds and will not be dislodged with ease.

Speed will be essential on the big ice surface. But both of these teams are very good at tightening up the game so all the meaningful battles and plays are made in confined space. There will be the occasional end to end, fast-paced stretches of play, but I think most of the game-changing plays will be made in close-quartered battles. Speed helps you enter those battles with momentum and an advantage. And speed helps you take advantage of pucks won in those areas.

I can talk and talk about this game forever. I'm literally fantasizing about it right now. You've got so many great players involved. All-Stars, Stanley Cup winners, 24 guys from the 2010 gold medal game.

You have 3 MVPs (Crosby, Corey Perry, Martin St. Louis), 2 Norris Trophy winners (P.K. Subban, Duncan Keith), 3 of the last 4 Conn Smythe winners (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Quick, Jonathan Toews), and there are 4 Jack Adams coach of the year award winners behind the two benches.

This is going to be great. And the winner gets a chance to play for gold, the loser goes to the bronze medal game.

The game will be on NBC Sports, and WEEI in Boston will be broadcasting it over the radio.