Monday, February 22, 2010

Long time no blog--Olympic edition

Canada's international hockey supremacy seems to go through peaks and troughs, much like my blogging tendencies.

Prior to 2002, the men's Olympic team hadn't won a gold medal for fifty years. After that, the tournament titles and medals seemed to come with ease once again: the world cup in 2004, five straight world junior championship titles, world championship titles, world under-eighteens, women's world championships, the Spengler Cup--you name it, Canada won it. That all changed about two years ago, however. Canada lost back-to-back world championships to the Russians and women's world championships to the United States, and then there was this year's loss to the Americans in the gold medal game at the world juniors and other tournaments like the world under-eighteens in which Canada did not meet expectations.

Now, Canada finds themselves in sixth place at the Olympic tournament, on home ice, after falling to the Americans last night in a back-and-forth affair where mistakes proved to be too many and too costly. Despite out-shooting and out-chancing the Americans almost 2-1, uncharacteristic gaffes by veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur and defencemen Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer cost Canada the game, combined with Ryan Miller's other-worldly performance in the U.S. net. The stars seemed to be aligned for the United States: fifty years since they had last beaten Canada at the Olympics, and thirty years since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team won the country's only gold medal in men's hockey.

Canada is now left searching for answers after going 1-1-1-0 and accumulating just five of a possible nine points in the preliminary round. Much like four years ago in Turin, and eight years ago in Salt Lake City. Who plays with Crosby? Who starts in goal? What's wrong with the powerplay? We should've chosen Green/Bouwmeester/St. Louis/Lecavalier/Jordan Staal/Stamkos/Smyth/Insert-name-of-Canadian NHL-player-here!

Sure it can be argued that Canada was the victim of some bad bounces last night against the Americans, maybe even that they were subject to some questionable officiating, but for two games now their defensive game has looked shaky and they have been consistently out-worked in their own zone. It's nice to see Doughty, Keith, and Seabrook, and Weber rise to the occasion when Pronger and Niedermayer, and to some extent, Boyle, struggle, but it would be even nicer to have them all on their game, all on the same page.

Today's practice supposedly focused primarily on defence and special teams, an area of this team's game that has irked me, specifically the power play. In the final minutes of the game against Switzerland, Canada had a golden opportunity to take the lead and win the game on the powerplay, but Babcock deployed the "Sharks unit" instead of putting Crosby, arguably his best player, on the ice.

The Shark line and the powerplay unit made up of Heatley, Marleau, Thornton, and Boyle has been largely ineffective with the exception of Heatley's four goals and Marleau's one. Thornton has zero, and just one shot on goal in 48:38 of ice time. The purpose of all three of these players making the team was the supposed "instant chemistry" that is purportedly essential in a short tournament like the Olympics. Why not go back to the Getzlaf-Heatley-Nash line that has been so effective in the world championships? This line does not have to be kept together.

Another qualm I have with the line combinations is the constant rotation of wingers on Crosby's line, partially because it makes me feel like I'm watching a Flames game but also because I fail to see any real faults with the original combination of Nash-Crosby-Iginla. Iginla had a hat trick in the first game they played together while registering under ten minutes of ice time, and Nash has been one of Canada's best players through three games. Why change that? Kent points out the futility of chemistry in these games and in the sport altogether over at Five Hole Fanatics, so can we assume that there are just too many players on this team not playing well enough to create chances and score goals? Canada's highly-touted depth has not yet been much of a factor in this tournament, and it remains to be seen if it ever will be.

Finally, we have the goaltending conundrum that seems to have emerged after Brodeur's shaky performance in goal. During the game against Switzerland, he was the victim of a perfect shot and a deflection off of a teammate's skate, and was unbeatable the rest of the way; there was no question that he would start the game versus the Americans. Sunday night was the complete opposite.

Brodeur created the bad bounces for himself by making bad decisions with the puck and finding himself out of position on more than one occasion, and now the job falls to Luongo who, although not tested against Norway, looked solid in the Canadian goal while the rest of the team struggled to find their legs. I'm usually the last person to support Roberto Luongo given my NHL allegiances, but Brodeur's performance last night in such an important game was unacceptable, and Luongo deserves an opportunity to better him; we all know he is more than capable, especially based on his stats leading up to the Olympic break versus Brodeur's numbers.

If Canada is to medal in men's hockey at these games, they have certainly taken the hard road there. This tournament was supposed to be about redemption. Canada was supposed to come into Vancouver, on home ice, and avenge a seventh place finish four years ago in Torino, and it'll likely be nothing short of a miracle if they manage a better result this time around. I don't know what it is going to take to get this team and this country back on top. They have the talent, without question, as do other countries in this tournament, but the desire and commitment seems to come in fits and starts, which perhaps explains the perplexing problem of Canada's wavering dominance at the international level.

Up Next: Canada takes on Germany in the qualification game on Tuesday, and will face Russia in the quarter-final on Wednesday, should they advance. I'll be over here crying into my pillow if you need me.

Go Canada.

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