Thursday, February 25, 2010
Thursday Morning Cupcheck - Oy, Canada
Want the edge in your Olympic hockey betting? Try the Russian mafia.
Howdy, hockey fans! Here's hoping your adrenaline-and-bloodlust levels since the U.S. victory over Canada aren't tapped out: Remember, there are some non-meaningless games still left to play. Last week we delved into a little of the Olympics' heavy-on-the-Nazis history; this week, I was planning on typing an entire column of nothing but USA!! USA!! USA!! in all bold/caps until my fingers kerploded.
But after taking a gander at the Olympic hockey standings, I realized that there's still work to do. Namely, that America's huge victory over Canada meant two things: Jack and s**t ... and Jack just left town. For all its awesomeness, America had just won the NFL equivalent of a regular season game and a bye week. Hell, the Indianapolis Colts win those every year and they suck.
Making the high drama and trash-talking even more impotent? Canada then cruised through their next two opponents, scoring 15 goals in the process. Could the Americans have -- like a clueless archeologist stumbling blindly into the Tomb of the Aztec Mummy without heeding the inscriptions above the tomb entrance -- awakened the Beast in its Lair?
Quick answer: N.
Slightly longer answer: Probably not. Here's your breakdown of the Top 4 Teams Left Standing, in no particular order other than expected Medal finish.
Expected Finish: Gold Medal
Oh? And Why Is That?: Relentlessly aggressive physical play. The young forwards on this team might not have been "elite" or "skilled" enough to compete with the Canadians on paper --but on actual ice they should do just fine. Every year during the Stanley Cup playoffs, we see a pattern emerge: teams with nothing to lose don't lose very often. Speed kills skills. And for once, I actually think Brian Burke may have actually done something beneficial to a team in his charge: from the moment the roster was picked, there was little to argue about concerning the make-up of this team. Even the "old" guys on the team are tested playoff vets like Chris Drury and Jamie Langenbrunner --quiet on the scoresheet, but like a Toyota they're noisy in the clutch. And of course, let's not forget their amazing goaltending, which makes their hard-charging berserker game plan work. Also, it's high time we finally settled that Aroostook business once and for all.
But What If.....they can't score enough? Ah, the Bane of Aggressive Young teams: hot-headed forwards who would rather plow enemy defensemen into the boards than scoop up the resulting turnover and pot it in for a goal. America seems to have plenty of that. On the other hand, even though the U.S. team hasn't been scoring eight goals a game, they've also won all but one of their games thus far by two goal margins. Hockey is a simple game, and if you do the right things you'll get the results you want.
**U.S. States 51 Through 55**
Expected Finish: Silver Medal
Oh? And Why Is That?: Too many San Jose Sharks. As we all saw last night with Nabokov, the Sharks Suck Factor is strong at work in these Olympics; Nabokov's SSF was just stronger than the Thornton Line's, which has already seen its share of invisibility (see: games against the Swiss, Americans). When Canadian head coach Mike Babcock puts his no-talent "grind line" (usually Mike Richards, Stars captain Brendan Morrow and Jarome Iginla.. all captains, all amazing players that crash the net relentlessly and can also kill penalties) on the ice longer than six minutes a game, they win. Big. But giving huge minutes to the Marleau-Thornton-Heatley and Whomever-Crosby-Whomever lines at the expense of the net-crashers has backfired with predictable regularity. This isn't the All-Star game where nobody checks. This is the effing Olympics: the one time every four years you get to smash into somebody just for being from another country, and get away with it.
But What If...... Babcock strays from his usual coaching philosophy and actual puts his grinders out there for 12 minutes, like he has in his last two wins? Not to worry; lost in the elation of scoring 15 goals against the Stalingrad Twins are two simple facts: #1, the goaltending is still suspect. Luongo hasn't been that much more impressive than Brodeur against a lay-down-and-die German team and the looks-like-they're-hungover-again Russians. The Germans' best scorer was Marcel Goc, and they laid two on the Canadians; the overhyped Russians --who, when you think about it, had four superstar forwards and a bunch of Maxim Afinogenovs and KHL scrubs-- potted three goals despite no-shows from every one of their top guys (note to the New Jersey Devils: you might be regretting the Oduya trade four games into the first round). #2: Canada has gone gangbusters against teams with poor defenses, and struggled with teams that have actual goaltending and defense, like America and Switzerland.
Expected Finish: Bronze Medal
Oh? And Why Is That?: Too many San Jose Sha--oh, wait, scratch that. This team is easily the most surprising of the tournament, surviving longer than their Group of Death Eurotrash rivals Russia and the Czech Republic. And they're doing it somewhat similarly to the Americans: amazing goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, physical defense and a lightning-fast counterattack that leaves allegedly more-talented teams gasping for air. It's even possible that combination could spell the end of Canada's hopes even before their inevitable second showdown with the U.S.
But What If...... Halak goes all Nabokov? Halak's regular season has shown streaks where he stops beebees with a car antenna -- punctuated by games where you wonder if 'Jaroslav' is Slovakian for 'Grand Canyon'. Still, as the last remaining Enigmatic European team, it's literally impossible to predict which team will show up. They could get blown out by the Finns, or cruise behind two 45-save shutouts to the Gold Medal. The Law of Hockey Averages, however, says they'll give up an overtime goal to the Canadians before curb-stomping Finland 5-0.
Expected Finish: Tin Medal
Oh? And Why Is That?: No Jussi Jokinen. When they selected this team and left off a fifth former Dallas Star, you just knew this team was doomed. Really, they're fun to watch: other than Olli Jokinen, the entire team plays as a tight-checking unit, with speed and flash and highlight-reel goals that are routinely ignored by the mainstream hockey press (how many more times do we have to hear that Nik Hagman is a 'spare'? The guy's got more highlight reels over the past three seasons than anyone not named Ovechkin. And Hagman's are unquestionably better). They've got a spectacular goalie in Kiprusoff, underrated defensemen in Timonen, Lydman and Salo, and a stable of quietly amazing forwards like Hagman, Kapanen, Miettinen, Lehtinen, the Ruutus and the Koivus. No one ever picks this team to do anything ever, but they always show up the allegedly "more talented" teams like they showed up the Soviet Union in 1940. Anything less than a Silver would be a damn shame for this collection of team-first nice guys.
But What If...... they actually defeat the U.S.? It's entirely possible: the Americans are fueled by anger and barbarian rage, which is easy to muster against the hated Canadians or Russkies but utterly impossible against the Finns. We all saw what an emotionless U.S. team looked like when they were nearly upset by an offensively deficient Swiss team --the Finns are hardly punchless, and in fact are likely the best counterattacking team left in the Olympics. Should they beat the Americans, they'll probably lose to the Canadians, which will leave the U.S. strangely disappointed despite just being a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors.
That's it for this week's 100% correct collection of off-base predictions. Tune in next week when an angry group of Canucks shows up at my doorstep with sauteed crow in orange sauce: their inability to cook, either, may surprise you.