Wednesday, February 24, 2010

People Everywhere Are Talking Hockey

I find myself in Florida, where my company runs the Big Ten/BIG EAST Baseball Challenge, which takes place this weekend in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, FL, during the biggest hockey event of the past four years. While it's hardly hockey country, people here are jacked up and talking about today's U.S.-Switzerland and Canada-Russia games. My challenge: to find a place during my site visits to watch the games. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, spread the word about our event! Thirty NCAA Division I baseball games in three days at current and former major league spring training facilities. Entire weekend pass only $25. Maybe I'll see someone here!

By the way, if you told me in 1980 that I would grow up to be rooting for Russia in a hockey game vs. Canada, I'd have asked you where you got whatever you were smoking.

Should be another epic day of hockey. May not have time to post more, but I'll try.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Olympic Hockey Playoff Picture

Here it is, just the facts, courtesy of James Mirtle's blog. A breakdown to come later, but wanted to get this out there! See below for the playoff round seedings and upcoming schedule.

Great game last night, regardless of who you root for. I'm not sure the U.S. could do that again against Canada, but I thought the same thing in '96. Yesterday produced some of the best hockey you'll ever see. And I would be remiss to not mention the Ovechkin game-changing hit on Jagr. He provides that intangible physicality and all-out effort that often has been missing from Russian squads in past years. If you get a chance, go back and watch the hit on video and look at the priceless reaction of the players on the Russian bench. When can you remember a Russian team ever showing that much emotion or excitement on the ice? This team has as good a chance as anyone heading into the playoff round. The rest of this tournament should be amazing. Enjoy!

Thanks to James Mirtle for posting this information:

1. United States
2. Sweden
3. Russia
4. Finland
5. Czech Republic
6. Canada
7. Slovakia
8. Switzerland
9. Belarus
10. Norway
11. Germany
12. Latvia

Qualifying Round (Tuesday):
G1: Czech Rep. vs. Latvia
G2: Canada vs. Germany
G3: Slovakia vs. Norway
G4: Switzerland vs. Belarus

Quarterfinals (Wednesday):
Q1. United States vs. Switzerland/Belarus
Q2. Sweden vs. Slovakia/Norway
Q3. Russia vs. Canada/Germany
Q4. Finland vs. Czech Rep./Latvia

Semi-finals (Friday)
Q1 vs. Q4
Q2 vs. Q3

Bronze-medal game (Saturday)
Semi-final losers

Gold-medal game (Sunday)
Semi-final winners

Sunday, February 21, 2010

U.S. - Canada Preview

“All-Star teams fail because they rely solely on the individual’s talents. The Soviets are successful because they take those talents and mold them into a system designed for the betterment of the team.”

As a youth hockey coach I quote Herb Brooks a lot. Yes, when I do it the kids on my teams look at me the same way the 1980 U.S. squad stared at Brooks – like I’m speaking, well, Russian. But take a look at the quote above. It’s not a direct “Brooks-ism,” but it was taken from the movie Miracle.

Read the quote and apply it to what we have seen so far in the Olympic hockey tournament. A team like Switzerland, which has a group of players that competes together regularly and has developed a system that fits the talents and limitations of its personnel, can give a hastily-assembled squad such as Canada – and the United States, for that matter – a run for its money. Unfortunately for the Swiss, the loss to Candada ultimately was decided by the most unfair, although admittedly exciting, exercise in sport – a shootout. After playing an incredibly disciplined and heady team game and coming from two goals down to tie, Switzerland lost out in a one-on-one contest that truly does highlight the individual over the team.

So, as the Canadians and Americans prepare for their “Rivalry Sunday” grudge match (this may be the greatest one-day display of hockey in our lifetimes, with the Fins facing the Swedes and the Czechs taking on the Russians in addition to U.S.-Canada), who has the edge? Well, on paper surely the Canadians are superior, but to this point neither team has hit on all cylinders.

Here’s what we know: The crowd will be jacked up, and the energy in the building will be astronomical. Both teams will come out flying, so there should be some fast-paced, physical, don’t-blink-for-a-second action right out of the gate. That emotion and energy most likely will lead to a second-period lull in the action as the players bodies recover and they settle in for a revved-up third period.

This is the type of game that isn’t going to come down to who wants it more. Everyone will be sacrificing his body for the good of the team. It will come down to which unit actually plays more like a team – at both ends of the ice. The key will be whether the U.S. can weather the first 10 minutes without giving up multiple goals. If the Americans can get through that opening barrage even or down a goal, they have a chance. But if Canada nets a couple early and really gets it rolling, the U.S. will be in for a long night – unless Ryan Miller, who has looked sharp thus far, returns to his early-season brilliance.

It’s hard to get a feel for which scenario will play out, but here’s a hunch to mull over: The U.S. has a group that seems to be a little more accustomed to playing a two-way, grinding style, clogging up the passing lanes and generally making games ugly. On the NHL-sized ice surface, that’s the type of effort it will take to win this game. The U.S. already has positioned itself well and has nothing to lose. Canada will be under a great deal of pressure to break out and show not only the world, but also its own demanding supporters, why it entered the tournament as the favorite. Miller will thrive in this environment and keep his team in the game long enough for the Americans to win ugly. The U.S. will get goals from Phil Kessel, who will net a pair, Jack Johnson and Ryan Callahan en route to a 4-2 decision.

Unfortunately, this means that if the two teams meet again later in the tournament that Canada would, in my mind, be extremely tough to beat.

Keys to the Game
U.S. Speed on the Outside vs. Canadian Defensive Corps
I’ve said all along that Niedermayer and Pronger are well past their better days. Young blueliner Drew Doughty made a poor decision that cost Canada a goal vs. the Swiss. The Americans should be able to take the puck wide, crash the net and score a couple of ugly goals. The Canadian forwards, including the superstars, must commit to playing a two-way game to win. In addition, Canada’s defensemen need to be able to support the forwards offensively and still recover to slow down the American transition game.

Ryan Miller
He’s been solid so far, but will see a lot more rubber tonight. I like the way he’s been able to ease his way into the tournament, and I expect a great effort vs. the Canadians.

Canada’s Big Guns vs. Themselves
Something has been missing in the play of the top Canadian players. They just aren’t clicking yet. There were several botched odd-man rushes against Switzerland – two in a row in the second period that involved Sidney Crosby and ultimately allowed the Swiss to gain some momentum and net their first goal. Once they do get it rolling, though, watch out. The U.S. has to play a disciplined, defense-first style with their forwards committed to backchecking aggressively and pursuing the Canadian forwards through the neutral zone, allowing the American defense to have the confidence to stand guys up and take the body.

The Home Crowd
Will the Canadian fans remain supportive and energize the home team if things don’t go well right off the opening faceoff, or will they start to demonstrate their frustration? The amount of pressure felt by Canada will be directly proportional to the fan reaction. This part of the game within the game will be extremely interesting to watch.

Other Olympic Observations - The Savvy Swedes
Sweden’s conservative, methodical efforts thus far were surprising for a team whose core has played together countless times over the past decade. The Swedes have almost looked as though they have been saving energy and working the kinks out. No one really has stood out, although the team defensive play has been very solid. Sweden has played disciplined hockey in both ends, allowed Henrik Lundqvist to play his way into the tournament and d just enough to record the win. Perhaps they are smarter than the rest of us. The Swedes are so savvy and even-keeled that I always feel like whatever they are doing is part of the master plan. Peter Forsberg doesn’t appear to be anywhere near his old self, but I did think that the Sedins brought some needed energy to the ice for Sweden, which is still my favorite to win gold because of their depth and experience at both ends of the rink. We’ll learn more tonight when they face Finland, their arch-rival, in what should be a fast and physical matchup.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Day 1 Thoughts

Admittedly I only saw about 2/3 of the U.S. game and none of the Canada game, as my son had a rare weeknight hockey game about 90 minutes away from Baltimore. But really the day went pretty much as expected.

United States vs. Switzerland
This was a perfect opening test for the U.S. A game they should win, but still a challenging matchup against a scrappy, physical team with a solid goaltender. The workmanlike win will give the U.S. confidence, but the challenges presented by the Swiss showed the Americans how much work they had to do. Ryan Miller made several difficult saves and looked sharp in net, although the goal allowed was clearly his fault. The U.S. defensemen move the puck well, but were a bit sloppy in their own end at times. American forwards must transition more quickly, make better decisions with the lead and back check harder. I like the line combinations, but continue to be amazed by the fact that once-talented Chris Drury has gone from a skill player to an energy guy. But, the team needed that way. The U.S. looked tired in the third and was not committed to the two-way game. That will hurt them against the better teams.

Canada vs. Norway
I'm relying on third-party reports here, but it sounds like Canada may have experienced some opening-night jitters and really looked disjointed in the first period. But once it started to click, the talent took over. Luongo was not really tested in goal, making 15 saves. As the tournament goes on the Canadians will get better and better working as a unit, but the pressure also will increase with each passing day. That's an interesting dynamic to follow.

Russia vs. Latvia
The Russians came out with a lot of energy and flash, which sometimes has been lacking with them in past opening-round games. Then, once they got comfortable, it seemed as though they fell into a pattern of toying with the overmatched Latvians. Nabakov seemed to lose concentration a bit in the third period, but he wasn't getting a ton of help. Russia's blue line corps is a concern for sure. The one thing that they have, however, is the full-time energy of Alex Ovechkin. I imagine that it's hard to take a shift off when your best player is out there going 100 mph all the time. That's an element the Russians have missed in past Olympics. If Ovechkin's effort can continue to challenge his teammates to focus and give their best, the Russian's will be tough to beat. I thought Fedorov looked more rested and energetic than in his recent NHL seasons, and he remains one of the most savvy players in the world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Slightly Biased Olympic Preview, Part Deux

It would be easy to look at the Olympic men’s hockey tournament on paper and come up with a preview and predictions. Just going by the seedings and analyzing raw talent, it wouldn’t be difficult to hand the gold to Canada, the silver to Russia and the bronze to Sweden. Or you could just draw those three team’s names out of a hat and place them in any order and probably have as good of a chance as anyone of predicting the final outcome. But that’s not fun, and I guarantee you that at least one of those teams does not medal.

Other than the United States, those three teams have rosters stacked full of more NHL talent than any of their competitors. Only the U.S. and Canada have lineups completely comprised of NHL-level players, but clearly Canada, Russia and Sweden have more seasoned, elite NHL and international veterans than the young up-and-coming Americans – or anyone else in the field. Canada has the deepest squad, Russia has the most skilled and explosive group and Sweden is the most balanced.

Canada, Russia and Sweden justifiably are the tournament’s top-three seeds, in that order, followed by Finland, the Czech Republic, the U.S., Switzerland and Slovakia. The Fins, Czechs and Americans all look to be at about the same level, with Slovakia just behind them in terms of talent. Finland and the Czechs have more international experience than the U.S., but American head coach Ron Wilson has a young, talented and energetic group that is solid at both ends of the ice. That’s just the kind of team the dry-witted, oft-sarcastic but well-prepared Wilson can help overachieve.

Switzerland only has two NHL players on its roster, but the Swiss have played spoiler in the past and have one of the league’s top young netminders in Jonas Hiller, who just happens to be one of the only goalies in the tournament playing well as his team prepares to get the Olympic hockey competition started today with a 3 p.m. tilt vs. the U.S. in Vancouver.

Hiller provides an important segue at this point. You can’t simply look at talent to predict the outcome of a short tournament with a one-and-done playoff format. This isn’t the Stanley Cup playoffs, where a more talented team can fall behind two games to none and then grind out a six- or seven-game series victory. Teams get three games in the preliminary round to mesh and get to know one another before being reshuffled into a single-elimination playoff.

If a goaltender such as Hiller catches lightning in a bottle for one game, a team and nation such as Canada can see its gold medal hopes dashed just like that. Each of the top eight teams in the draw has enough NHL and international experience – and the type of goaltending – to beat any other team on a given day or night. Just look at the NHL: The talent is distributed widely enough that the top teams have to be on top of their games almost every night or they can easily fall to any opponent. This tournament is no different – except that it is played on an international stage and that one loss can lead to four years of nationwide disappointment.

Two intriguing teams flying below the radar are the United States and Sweden. Russia and Canada appropriately have been propped up at the top of the field, but the U.S. and Sweden are lurking as potential sleepers. Sweden shouldn’t be a sleeper, having won the gold in 2006, but the Swedes just aren’t getting the attention given to the Russians and Canadians. For pure hockey excitement, many purists are hoping for the Ovechkin-Crosby matchup in the gold medal game, which certainly would be a classic, but there is a tremendous amount of pressure on those two teams. That type of pressure can have a tremendous impact on athletes of any skill level – especially in a one-and-done situation.

Sweden has an incredibly talented team that possesses great skill and is committed to playing both ends of the ice. The Swedes also have a netminder, Henrik Lundqvist, who loves the big stage. He’s been inconsistent this year for the Rangers, but to steal a quote about Jim Craig from Herb Brooks, “Have you ever seen him when his game is on?” The Swedes just might have the best combination of talent, experience and two-way players in the tournament. In the past you might say that the smooth-skaters from Sweden would be at a disadvantage playing on the smaller NHL-sized rink, but nearly all of these players are used to the day-to-day rigors of life in the NHL.

That will not be an issue this year for them, just like it won’t be for the Russians. For my money, it’s really hard to bet against a lineup that includes seasoned Stanley Cup winners such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Johan Franzen sprinkled with younger stars such as the Sedin twins, Niklas Backstrom, Loui Eriksson, Patrick Hornqvist and Toby Enstrom. Throw in Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Forsberg, two of the most dominant players in the world for the past decade, and it’s hard to bet against the Swedes. Their biggest advantages may just be their even-keeled approach as a unit and the relatively low expectations. And keep in mind that there will be very little adjustment period for this group, many of whom have competed together many times dating back to their junior years.

The Americans have gone with a youth movement, leaving them in a similar position as the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, which was picked by many to finish as low as seventh before shocking the world exactly 30 years ago this month.

That role is perfect for Wilson, who guided the 1996 U.S. team to an upset victory at the World Cup and led the fourth-seeded Washington Capitals to a surprising Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Wilson is a straight shooter with a sharp tongue and a quick wit. His style can wear on veteran players over an extended period of time, but with this young group he may have the perfect approach. Wilson is a preparation freak who will keep his team loose and allow them to bond on and off the ice. There is no question he will be prepared – probably over-prepared.

Yesterday, instead of practicing as a team, Wilson held a long team meeting – no doubt to make sure that his players understand exactly what he expects from them and to pound home the style and systems that he thinks will give them the best chance to succeed. He knows these guys have been skating hard since NHL training camp in September and have had 60 games in a little more than four months jammed down their throats. Many of them played two games in three days leading up to the Olympics and then had to travel cross-continent to get to Vancouver. In his mind, an extra day of rest paired with an in-depth skull session was more important to his young group than skating. I think under the circumstances I would concur. The team isn’t going to play any better together after a 75-minute skate, so why not make sure that they all are on the same page. Wilson isn’t afraid to go against the grain, which is precisely what makes him a good fit for this team.

His most important decision will be who to play in goal. He has given the job to Ryan Miller, who was the NHL’s best netminder through 45 games before struggling in the last month or so. Is Miller tired from playing so many games in Buffalo? Maybe. But Wilson is hoping that perhaps Miller was looking ahead to the Olympics and will be in the proper mental frame of mind as the Games begin. If Miller struggles in the opening contest, Wilson has the luxury of taking a look at Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina winner who has also been inconsistent this season, or wild card Jonathan Quick of the Kings, who arguably has been the NHL’s hottest goalie in the past month. Quick has been playing well enough to take this team a long way and should be Wilson’s choice if Miller falters.

A lot will be gleaned from today’s opening matchup with the Swiss. The youthful Americans will have some nervous energy to get out of their system, but if Miller plays well and the U.S. can grind out a workmanlike victory, the Americans will be in a great position going forward. On the other hand, if they play tight and Miller struggles, it could be difficult for them to recover.

Seasoned veterans such as Bryan Rafalski, Chris Drury (a big-game player who has been very inconsistent since signing with the Rangers) and Jamie Langenbrunner will need to provide veteran leadership for a roster full of young players who are just beginning to make names for themselves. Look for Phil Kessel to show the world what the folks in Toronto already have learned – that he is a poor man’s Alex Ovechkin without the physical edge – and for youngsters such as Zach Parise, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Callahan and Patrick Kane to open eyes with their speed and skill. A solid opening-night performance, along with Wilson’s proclivity for bringing teams together quickly and a roster that has speed and two-way ability, gives the U.S. a legitimate shot at a medal.

Don’t count out Finland, the fourth seed, either. You never can rule out a group of superior goaltenders such as Niklas Backstrom, Mikka Kiprusoff and journeyman Antero Niittymaki, who has been playing very well of late. The Fins usually are a physical group that is solid defensively. Their style and experience will be a nice fit on the smaller ice surface.

The Czechs are a talented team, but will be hard-pressed to emulate the success they enjoyed early in the decade when Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr were in their primes. Slovakia is a team that has the ability to be a big surprise if the other more highly touted nations treat them lightly. A lot will depend on a solid, but unspectacular goaltending trio that includes Montreal up-and-comer Jaroslav Halak, and whether Zdeno Chara can return to his Norris Trophy form of a year ago. The health of recently injured Marian Gaborik also will play a big role in determining the fate of the Slovaks.

Now, on to the favorites. Canada is stacked and should not have to deal with the offensive struggles that plagued its 2006 Olympic performance. Sidney Crosby, Dany Heatly, Jerome Iginia, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Mkie Richards, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton, and the list goes on – what an incredible combination of speed, skill, grit and playmaking ability. Combine that with several character guys who will battle and play both ends – along with budding superstar Jonathan Toews – and you have a recipe for success. On the defensive end, however, and in goal – oddly enough – is where I think the Canadians may struggle a bit.

Normally if you have Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo in net you are set for about 80 games of outstanding netminding. Both have struggled of late, however, and each one will get a shot to prove something in the team’s first two contests. On the blue line, veteran Stanley Cup winner Scott Niedermayer is being counted on to provide leadership for youngsters such as Drew Doughty and Shea Weber. Niedermayer has seen his better days – even he says so - and quite frankly will struggle against speed-oriented lineups. Chris Pronger was the NHL’s best defenseman 10 years ago. His best years have passed him by as well. Weber and Doughty have never played under the type of pressure they will face in Vancouver. That leaves talented blueliners Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Dan Boyle, players with limited international experience, to step up and become the next wave of elite Canadian defensemen. Surely this is a talented group, but their success is not a slam dunk by any means.

When I first looked at the Russian lineup I wondered aloud who could possibly shut it down. What a combination of speed and skill, along with some wily, battle-tested vets. Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Malkin, Semin, Datsyuk and Fedorov. Wow. What a mix! It will be interesting to see the makeup of their third and fourth lines and how tough those trios can play along the boards, in front of the opposing net and in their own end.

Upon first glance, the Russian defense seems to have some holes. I really thought there could be some issues along the blue line, but those fears were eased somewhat after I watched Anton Volchenko block 11 shots against the Caps last week. Volchenkov is a quite a talent, even though he is a relative unknown toiling in Ottawa. Now, however, the uncertainty of stalwart backliner Andrei Markov’s health casts some doubt on the Russian unit. I’m just not sure that players such as Fedor Tyutin, Ilya Nikulin, Denis Grebeshkov, Dmitri Kalinin and Konstantin Korneyev can match up with the talent of some possessed by some of the forwards they will face. Certainly Sergei Gonchar will be a steadying influence on the blue line, but if Markov is not 100 percent, this team will struggle in its own end. Gonchar also has a tendency to be careless with the puck in his when under heavy pressure.

Of course the Russians will be able to run and gun their way past some of the lesser teams and probably would be able to pound a team like Finland, Switzerland or Slovakia into submission with their offensive ability. They may be in for a surprise, however, against teams that are solid at both ends and have some talent up front.

To predict the results of an elite-level hockey tournament such as the Olympics, you have to really look at each team game-by-game. I look for Canada to edge the U.S. by a couple goals in the key Group A matchup while rolling through its other two preliminary contests. The Americans will get off to a strong start vs. the Swiss and handle Norway easily.

In Group B, Russia will take care of the Czechs and get a tough battle form the Slovaks, rallying to edge them by a goal. Slovakia will win the swing game against the Czechs, and all three teams will handle Latvia with relative ease.

Group C will feature the preliminary-round’s biggest upset, with Germany handing the Fins a low-scoring loss. Sweden will best Finland by a pair and easily take care of Belarus and Germany. That will leave the surprising German’s with a 2-1 record in the opening round.

Qualification Round: Slovakia vs. Latvia, Finland vs. Switzerland, Czech Republic vs. Belarus, Germany vs. Norway. Winners – Slovakia, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany.

Quarterfinal Round: Slovakia vs. Sweden, Finland vs. U.S., Canada vs. Czech Republic, Russia vs. Germany.

Sweden fights past the Slovaks in one of the best games of the tournament, winning by a goal. The U.S. beats Finland in a shootout. Canada buries the Czechs. Russia rolls.

Semifinal Round: Sweden vs. U.S., Canada vs. Russia.

Sweden’s experience is just too much for the Americans, who fall by a pair on a late empty-netter. We get the matchup that everyone wanted between Canada and Russia, and the Russians win it in an epic shootout.

Bronze Medal Game: U.S. vs. Canada. The overachieving U.S. team jumps out to an early lead against the deflated Canadians, but the Vancouver crowd brings their boys back into the game, but it’s not enough. The real Ryan Miller stands up, then stands on his head, and holds off the rallying Canadians. A U.S. empty-netter seals the upset win.

Gold Medal Game: Sweden vs. Russia. Sweden holds off Russia’s early attack and then systematically wears down the Russian defense en route to a 5-3 win and a sescond consecutive gold medal.

There you have it. These predictions are intended only for your enjoyment, are guaranteed to anger you and should not be the basis for any wager – monetary or otherwise. Let me state this condition, however: If the U.S. manages to beat the Canadians in the preliminary round, I give the edge to Canada if the two countries meet a second time in the playoffs. Enjoy the tournament!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Olympic Hockey Preview, Part I

Olympic Preview Part I
If you’ve discovered this blog, clearly you are a hockey fan, so there’s probably no need to discuss how good the hockey will be during the upcoming Vancouver Olympics. There’s nothing more exciting than the best players in the world giving their all in the name of their native countries.

That excitement is enhanced by the fact that the Olympic tournament does not feature long, drawn-out best-of-seven series. Nope. Once the preliminaries are finished it’s a one-and-done format. All it takes is a hot goalie and a couple of timely bounces, and on any given night you could be staring at another Miracle on Ice.

The fact that this year’s tournament is taking place where hockey was born, along with the incredible talent spread out among the 12 teams, should make the 2010 Olympic hockey competition the most exciting and most watched ever. Adding to the urgency to win a gold medal in 2010 is the uncertainty surrounding the prospect of NHL players competing in Russia in 2014. I have a theory about that, but that’s for another day and another blog.

So, the next two postings will preview the upcoming Olympic hockey competition, which gets underway on Tuesday, Feb. 16, when the United States takes on Switzerland at 3 p.m. Eastern time.

The next blog will delve into the actual team/talent breakdown, predictions, games analysisvand so on. This space will be dedicated to explaining the format, listing the groupings and providing the schedule – all of which constitutes a full-blown posting on its own.

Tournament Groupings
In Torino (2006), the Olympic hockey competition featured two six-team groups. This year’s tournament has three groupings, which have been determined by each country’s 2009 world ranking:

Group A (seed in parentheses)
Canada (1)
USA (6)
Switzerland (7)
Norway (12)

Group B
Russia (2)
Czech Republic (5)
Slovakia (8)
Latvia (11)

Group C
Sweden (3)
Finland (4)
Germany (9)
Belarus (10)

Preliminary Round
The preliminary round, which gets underway Feb. 16, is a round-robin format in which each team plays the three other teams in its group to determine playoff-round seeding. Standings are computed using a three-point system, with teams getting three points for a regulation win, two points for an overtime win and one point for an overtime loss. Games that are tied after regulation will proceed to a five-minute overtime, which is followed by a shootout if no winner has been determined.

The winner of each group gets a bye into the quarterfinals along with the team with the next-highest point total, for a total of four byes. Ties in the standings will be broken to determine the fourth seed in the quarterfinals and the other playoff-round seedings utilizing the following tie-breaker: goal differential, total goals scored and IIHF world ranking – in that order. Once the four byes are determined, the Qualifying Playoff matchups will be 5 vs. 12, 6 vs. 11, 7 vs. 10, 8 vs. 9. The qualifying playoff games will take place on Feb. 24 and the quarterfinals on Feb. 25, followed by an off day. Both semifinals are scheduled for Feb. 26, with the losers playing for the bronze Feb. 27 and the winners going for gold Feb. 28.

Olympic Men’s Hockey Television Schedule

February 16
USA, 3 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Men's Hockey: USA vs. Switzerland
CNBC, 8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Canada vs. Norway
CNBC, 12:30 a.m. - 2:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Russia vs. Latvia

February 17
MSNBC, 3 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Finland vs. Belarus
CNBC, 8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Sweden vs. Germany
CNBC, 12:30 a.m. - 2:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Czech Republic vs. Slovakia

February 18
USA, 3 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Men's Hockey: USA vs. Norway
CNBC, 8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Canada vs. Norway
CNBC, 12:30 a.m. - 2:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Russia vs. Slovakia

February 19
MSNBC, 3 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Sweden vs. Belarus
CNBC, 8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Czech Republic vs. Latvia
MSNBC, midnight - 3 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Finland vs. Germany

February 20
MSNBC, 3 p.m. - 5:30 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Norway vs. Switzerland
MSNBC, 7:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Slovakia vs. Latvia
MSNBC, midnight - 3 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Belarus vs. Germany

February 21
MSNBC, 7 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: USA vs. Canada
MSNBC, midnight - 3 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Sweden vs. Finland

February 23
USA, 3 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Elimination Round
CNBC, 8 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Elimination Round
CNBC, 10 p.m. - 12:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Elimination Round
CNBC, 12:30 a.m. - 2:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Elimination Round

February 24
NBC, 3 p.m. - 5 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Quarterfinal Round
CNBC, 7 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Quarterfinal Round
CNBC, 10 p.m. - 12:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Quarterfinal Round
CNBC, 12:30 a.m. - 2:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Quarterfinal Round

February 25
NBC, 3 p.m. - 5 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Semifinal
CNBC, 9 p.m. - midnight: Men's Hockey: Semifinal

February 27
MSNBC, 10 p.m. - 12:30 a.m.: Men's Hockey: Bronze Medal Game

February 28
NBC, 3 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Men's Hockey: Gold Medal Game

Games to Watch
Oddly enough, the only game of the entire tournament not scheduled to be televised is the Russia-Czech Republic matchup (at least according to the Univeral Programming Guide), which should be one of the most wide-open and exciting of the preliminary round, on Feb. 21. Keep in mind that this will be the first Olympic hockey tournament ever played on an NHL-sized rink (200’ x 85’). Usually international events take place on a much larger ice surface (200’ x 98.5’). This will favor the North American teams (Canada, USA) as well as teams whose rosters are made up primarily of NHL players or players with NHL experience (Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia).

The following preliminary-round contests should not be missed

United States vs. Switzerland – Feb. 16
The opening game of the tournament is always a big one. The U.S. will be a heavy favorite, but the Swiss have pulled off upsets in the past and nerves may be a factor.

Czech Republic vs. Slovakia – Feb. 17
The Czech Republic has a roster full of talented NHL players, but the Slovaks have enough North American veteran pros to pull off an early upset.

Slovakia vs. Russia – Feb. 18
See above. Russia has an overwhelming talent advantage, but may be holding back for the playoff round and could be ripe for the picking.

Finland vs. Germany – Feb. 19
The Germans have pulled off surprises in the past and have enough NHL players and talented European pros to give the Fins a run for the money. Knocking off the top group of goaltenders in the tourney will be tough, though.

Russia vs. Czech Republic - Feb. 21
European grudge match. Should be a high-speed, physical battle. Other than U.S. vs.
Canada this is the marquee matchup of the preliminary round, but for some reason is not scheduled to be televised.

Canada vs. USA – Feb. 21
Canada on paper is the most talented team in the tournament, but this rivalry is unpredictable. The U.S. is a youthful and balanced team that will come with energy and should deliver good two-way hockey. It would not be surprising if the Americans give them a run for it, but the U.S. can only record the upset with spectacular goaltending.

Sweden vs. Finland – Feb. 24
The third- and fourth-seeded teams face off in a contradiction of styles. The Swedes play a fast, flowing game, while the Fins traditionally are more physical and defense-first. That said, Sweden’s roster has some of the best defensemen in the world. Always an exciting, hard-fought and physical battle. Should be a fun way to wrap up the opening round. There have been some ugly, NHL-style battles between these two teams over the years.

Please come back tomorrow for Part II of the Olympic Preview.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Respect (or Lack of Respect) is a Two-way Street

As the Caps prepare to make a run at NHL history with the NHL Olympic break approaching, I wanted to take a look back at the NHL’s game of the year – Sunday’s improbable 5-4 nationally televised comeback victory against the hated Penguins.

The victory certainly brightened an otherwise dreary, snowy afternoon in D.C. while – for those who believe such things – presumably ruining Super Bowl Sunday (am I allowed to write Super Bowl without paying a licensing fee to the NFL?) for Commissioner Bettman and the NBC broadcast crew.

I try really hard to respect the Penguins and their captain, who clearly is one of the best players in the world. While I would never root for Pittsburgh, I’d really like for the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry to be the modern day equivalent of Magic-Bird. But the composition and character of Crosby’s team, his unwillingness to give any opposing player credit for even the slightest bit of success and the Pens’ overzealous and blinded fanbase make that impossible.

I’ve given Brooks Orpik’s post-game comments a few days to sink in an attempt to take the emotion of the moment out of the equation and see both sides more clearly. This is not the first time that “Hooks” has uttered something after a bitter loss that just makes you shake your head. To Orpik’s credit, he is a player with a limited skill set who plays a hard-nosed style and has figured out what it takes for him to survive – and even succeed – at the NHL level. Unfortunately, some of the tactics it takes for him to do that certainly stretch the limitations of the rules. He uses his stick like a hatchet in front of and behind the net, takes late runs at players in an attempt to get them off their game and draw retaliation penalties and has figured out how to clutch and grab discreetly to avoid a penalty and so that players with more ability cannot humiliate him.

Orpik also has mastered the mental side of the game – better known as gamesmanship – by frequently spouting absurdities intended to either turn the media and public’s attention away from his mistakes and shortcomings or to get inside the head of an opponent. He ran his mouth last year after Sergei Gonchar’s self-inflicted knee-on-knee collision with Ovechkin (yes, Gonchar was running from him like a cat being chased by a pit bull) in the playoffs, hoping to get Ovechkin off his game, and did the same Sunday after taking a clear and stupid penalty that cost his team the game in overtime.

Orpik is smart enough to know that most likely the road to the Stanley Cup runs through either Mellon Arena or Verizon Center this year and that these two teams may meet as many as nine more times before all is said and done. So anything that he says that gives him a mental edge over the more talented Capitals, specifically Alexander Semin, can prove to be a big advantage. He also understood that his penalty cost his team the game, so to uphold the Penguin tradition of diminishing another team’s effort, he had to deflect the attention given to his bad penalty and the Caps’ tremendous effort by basically calling Semin a faker, actor, embellisher – choose your description.

“He does it all the time,” Orpik said. “The kid’s a baby. He does it all game long. I’ve got zero respect for the kid.”

Okay Brooksie let’s see, what does the fact that Semin might embellish a penalty every now and then have to do with what happened in overtime? Semin carried the puck out of the corner and curled toward the high slot before feeding a pass across to a teammate. At that point, after the pass had already been received, you decided to take a late run at him and clearly hit him in the mouth with your stick. Not only did you take yourself out of position and hang your defensive partner out to dry in an effort to hit Semin late, but you further cost your team by failing to control your stick. Oh, right, I forgot, Semin’s the villain in this situation. Even though it wasn’t an outrageously violent high stick, the last time someone tried to brush my teeth with a Sherwood, I recall that it didn’t feel too good.

Maybe Orpik’s right. I mean if Crosby had taken a stick to the chops with the game on the line – yes, the same Crosby who carries on a running dialogue with both referees throughout every game – I’m sure he wouldn’t have flinched and would have toughed it out without trying to make sure he got the penalty call. By the way, the Penguins weren’t known to many as the “Pittsburgh Diving Team” throughout the years thanks to the fine acting of players such as Lemieux, Jagr, Kovalev and Straka.

The bottom line is that Orpik made a game-changing mistake, and as a professional should stand up and take accountability instead of discrediting his opponent or blaming the officials. That’s not his style, and it’s not the Penguins’ style, which starts to get at the heart of why the Pens are despised around the league.

The best part of this whole situation, and what completely destroys Orpik’s credibility, is the fact that the Penguins were handed a completely bogus penalty call in their favor with 4:08 left in regulation and couldn’t capitalize. Matt Cooke’s stick broke while making a pass in the offensive zone, and the referee stationed nearly 100 feet away beyond the blue line decided it had to be the result of a slash even though the official six feet away saw the play clearly and correctly and called nothing. The nearest Cap was Jeff Schultz, who picked up the penalty, and he was a good four feet behind Cooke. Schultz couldn’t have reached Cooke’s stick if he had tried.

Where Orpik miscalculated this time around was in thinking that Semin would even give two thoughts to his comments. After listening to Orpik’s tirade toward the officials, teammate Bill Guerin decided to give Semin an earful, too. Semin skated away with a blank look on his face as if to say, “What in the world is that guy talking about?” Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that Semin didn’t lose any sleep over the prospect of being left off Orpik’s Christmas card list next year.

Penguins’ supporters wonder why they and their team are hated throughout the league. The way this game ended is Exhibit A. Whether it’s Crosby running his mouth all game long and looking like he’s going to cry every time he gets hit or one of the players throwing a post-game tantrum to discredit an opposing team’s effort (recall Crosby whining about the hats being thrown on the ice for Ovechkin’s hat trick in the 2009 playoffs), there just isn’t much to like.

Pens’ bloggers and message-board lurkers have come out with their guns blazing this week, saying that they have no respect for the Caps’ organization from the top down, that Bruce Boudreau is a tool who makes preposterous post-game comments, that the NHL screwed the Penguins on the scheduling (what?; remember the Caps’ lost “home ice advantage” in a not-so-long-ago playoff scheduling snafu?) and that Ovechkin is surrounded by more talent than Crosby or else Sid would be blowing him away in the scoring race (keep in mind Ovechkin has played alongside the likes of Jeff Halpern, Dainus Zubrus, Chris Clark and Victor Kozlov, among others, over the years).

I guess all of this gum smacking is just part of the culture in Pittsburgh. Early in Sunday’s game the Pens’ fans in attendance were running their mouths saying that Crosby is better than Ovechkin, that “this game is fun” and that the Caps were simply being outclassed. One savvy fan noted that Ovechkin was intimidated by the Pens and was avoiding hits, later to add, “Oh yeah, he’s a great player all right. Since he can’t beat us on the scoreboard, he’s just going to beat us up.” Hmmm…I guess he beat them up and outscored them, exactly why he’s the best in the world.

As the score inched closer, the trash talking switched to Stanley Cups won, history and so on. Then, at the end, there was silence. The most beautiful sound of all. Silence that has been followed by three days of trying to make a case about how the Caps are whiners, the game was given to them, the schedule was unfair, Ovechkin is overrated, yadda, yadda.

Seems like a lot of energy to waste on a team that you don’t respect and can’t challenge yours. It’s almost obsessive, don’t you think?