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.

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