Sunday, February 16, 2014

Olympic Hockey - Prelims

If you follow women’s international hockey, you know that there are Team USA, Team Canada, and then everybody else.  There are quite a few teams representing numerous different countries, but the Americans and Canadians stand 1-2 over the rest.  The gap is closing, but it’s still ponderous.  So it was no surprise to see Team USA and Team Canada each handle their business fairly easily through their first 2 games.   Canada peppered the appropriately named Swiss goalie Florence Schelling with 69 shots en route to a 5-0 rout, then beat Finland by a score of 3-0.  The American ladies cruised to a 3-1 victory over Finland, then unloaded their own barrage against Schelling for a 9-0 romp against Switzerland.  This set up a preliminary round showdown of the top 2 teams in women’s hockey.

The matchup between the US and Canada in each team’s 3rd game was by far the most anticipated contest of this Olympic women’s tournament.  It did not disappoint.  It’s no secret that there is no love lost between these two teams.  They make no secret of the fact that they don’t like each other.  They say familiarity breeds contempt, and these teams are very familiar with each other.  They met 7 times in pre-Olympic competition, with Team USA winning the last 4 matches after dropping the first 3.  Two of the games led to fisticuffs on the ice, a rarity in the women’s game.

I was looking forward to this game as much as anybody.  I had the chance to watch 2 of the tune-up games (including one of the brawls) and was looking forward to the intense, physical battle that this promised to be.  As I said before, this game did not disappoint (with the exception of the outcome, if you’re a Team USA fan).  Canada dictated the flow of the game for most of the first 57 minutes or so.  They came out throwing the body around and set the tempo early.  Except for a couple of inconsistencies, the refs let the girls play for the most part.  Canada seemed to thrive on the physicality, though the Americans didn't shy away from it.

The game was largely dominated by great goaltending.  Canada had numerous opportunities to score in the first period and US goalie Jessie Vetter was equal to the task.  The Americans also had their share of chances in the first period (outshooting Canada 11-8) but couldn't capitalize, hitting one crossbar and having several point-blank chances thwarted by defensive plays.  The second period was more of the same, with the Americans holding a slight advantage in shots.  Hilary Knight deflected a shot by Anne Schleper past Labonte on the Power Play, giving Team USA a 1-0 lead late in the second period.  Team Canada wasted little time tying things up, netting the equalizer on a Power Play early in the 3rd period.  Captain Canada Hayley Wickenheiser made a great pass to a wide-open Meghan Agosta-Marciano, who buried her shot to even the score.  Agosta-Marciano returned the favor, assisting on Wickenheiser’s controversial go-ahead goal.  I say controversial because replays showed that the puck crossed the line after the whistle had blown.  Somehow, the goal was allowed to stand after a review (though nobody seems to know whether the review confirmed or overturned the call on the ice, because the referee never signaled either way).  In any case, the goal did count.  Agosta-Marciano added another goal with just over five minutes remaining to make it a 3-1 game.  The Americans pulled Jessie Vetter for the extra attacker, which led to Anne Schleper’s goal with 1:05 remaining.  They pulled Vetter again but were unable to score the tying goal and dropped a 3-2 decision.

It’s a shame that a lot of people will be talking about the officiating in this game.  As I said, aside from a couple of inconsistencies (and missing at least two obvious too-many-men penalties), I thought it was a pretty well-officiated game.  Many people will focus on the goal that shouldn’t have counted, but make no mistake.  It was a bad call, and probably shouldn’t have been allowed to stand, but the Canadians definitely deserved to win the game.  They dominated most of the play throughout the game, and especially in the 3rd period (where they held the US without a shot on goal for the first 16 minutes or so).  They deserved to win the game.

Canada’s 3 stars of the game for me are definitely Labonte, Wickenheiser, and Agosta-Marciano.  Labonte held her team in the game early and made numerous big saves throughout.  Wickenheiser made the play that led to Canada’s first goal, then added one of her own, and she was the clear leader of the team from the drop of the puck.  Agosta-Marciano buried 2 goals.  Enough said.  The 3 stars for Team USA were Vetter, Knight, and Schleper.  Vetter fought off numerous early chances and held the Americans in the game for 2 periods before the dam finally burst.  Knight played an intense, physical game and created most of the chances that the Americans had in the game.  Schleper came up with a big offensive performance from the back end.

As expected, this game was far and away the best contest of the women’s tournament so far.  If these teams meet for the Gold Medal (as expected), that game should be even better than this one.  Don’t miss it!

On the men’s side, there were a few surprises.  Canada looked a little sluggish in their opening game against Norway.  They still got the win, but Norway is a second-tier team and Canada should have beaten them easily.  Of course, it was the first time most of these guy had played together, so they can be forgiven if it took them a few minutes to click.  On the other side of that coin, Team USA handily beat Slovakia in their opener, posting a 7-1 victory.  I was expecting a little bit more from the Slovaks.

The most anticipated matchup of the men’s prelims was undoubtedly Team USA vs Russia.  Billed as the rematch of the Miracle on Ice from the 1980 Olympics, it was probably the most hyped preliminary round game in Olympics history.  It all seems a bit silly to me.  There was none of the same drama from 1980…no cold war, no Afghanistan invasion, no scrappy college kids playing against seasoned pros…it’s just another game.  But for Russian hockey fans, it was a chance to see their beloved national team face the hated Americans on Russian ice.  From the opening faceoff, you could see it wasn't just another game.  The crowd was loud and rowdy.  It was a great atmosphere.  And the game didn't disappoint.  It was everything that most fans like in a hockey game.  Strong physical play, fast skating, pinpoint passing, tight defense, and solid goaltending.  After a scoreless first period, Pavel Datsyuk got the Russians on the board in the second period with a breakaway goal on Jonathan Quick.  With Alexander Radulov serving a cross-checking minor, Cam Fowler answered for the Americans with a Power Play goal past Sergei Bobrovsky.  Joe Pavelski put Team USA ahead with a Power Play goal of his own after another Radulov penalty.  Then Datsyuk tied the game with a Power Play goal of his own.

Here’s where it gets tricky.  With time winding down in regulation, Fyodor Tyutin fired the apparent go-ahead goal over Jonathan Quick’s shoulder, sending the Sochi crowd into a frenzy.  When the roar died down, the fans slowly came to realize that something was amiss.  The officials were consulting.  That’s usually not a good sign.  Then came the announcement…goal disallowed.  The faceoff went outside the American defensive zone without an actual explanation.  Most thought initially that they were reviewing whether or not a Russian player had deflected the puck with a high stick.  The replay seemed to show that nobody had deflected it, but a different replay showed that the net had come ever so slightly off its moorings during a net-mouth scramble just before the Tyutin shot.  Since, by rule, a goal cannot be scored while the net is dislodged (except under very few, very particular circumstances), the goal could not stand.  The final horn sounded without another goal, and the game was headed to overtime.  After a fairly uneventful 5-minute OT period failed to settle the score, it was up to a shootout to determine the winner.  After 3 shooters per side it was still deadlocked, so they went to sudden-death rounds.  In a quirk of international shootout rules, once the initial 3 shooters have gone a team can reuse any player as many times as they want.  At this point, T.J. Oshie became the designated shooter for the US, while the Russians alternated Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk.  Oshie went 4 for 6 in his attempts, finally winning the game for America after a Kovalchuk miss.  Final score, 3-2 Team USA in a shootout.

So, of course, people lined up around the block to cry foul about the disallowed goal.  Well, suck it up, buttercup.  They made the call according to the rule and they’re not gonna change it now.  If you think you’re the only team to lose a game on a disputed call, you’re sadly mistaken.  Just ask anybody in Buffalo.  Besides, it was only a prelim game.

In any case, now the prelims are over and it’s time to get down to business.  As I write this, we’re about 6 hours away from the women’s semifinal game between Team USA and Sweden.  I haven’t really seen anything of the Swedes, so I’m not sure what to expect from them.  What I do know is, to quote Hilary Knight, “I’d hate to be the other team right now”.  The US ladies want to come out and show that they’re ready to play for that Gold Medal, and I wouldn't want to be standing in their way.  Best of luck to all in the medal rounds.  Go USA!

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